illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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John Crowe Ransom (essay date 1956)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5088

SOURCE: "Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored," in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard B. Sewell, Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 88-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Ransom provides a general overview of twentieth-century criticism of Dickinson's poetry, noting in particular the impact of Thomas H. Johnson's 1955 edition of Dickinson's verse, as well as the characteristics and major themes of her poetry.]

We would have to go a good way back into the present century to find the peak of that furious energy which produced our biggest and most whirling flood of verse in this country. So it is not too foolhardy to make a proposal to the literary historian: Will he not see if the principal literary event of these last twenty years or so has not been the restoration just now of an old poet? Emily Dickinson's life was spanned by the years 1830-86, and in most ways she was surely not one of our "moderns."

But I will anticipate the historian's reservation. There is one kind of literary event which we think of as primary, and it occurs when a new poet comes decisively into his powers and starts upon his unique career. But often this event occurs obscurely, and receives only a small public notice. I am sure I do not know if a poet of Emily Dickinson's stature has launched himself in these late years, as she did about a century ago. Evidently it may be much later before the full notice is ready to be taken, and when this happens it will seem only a secondary event, to that romantic conviction in us which would rate importances intrinsically and instantly, as do the judgments of Heaven. Nevertheless it is a first-rate event for our practical or civic way of thinking.

In the autumn of 1955 appeared The Poems of Emily Dickinson, a complete variorum edition in three volumes, in which are arranged according to a rough but ingenious chronology all the poems which survived her, reaching to a number of 1,775 precisely. The editor was Thomas H. Johnson, and the Harvard University Press, acting through its new subsidiary the Belknap Press, was the publisher. The event is having its proper effect at once; already obsolete are all those scattered books which appeared one by one in the fifty or more years following the poet's death, and gave us the only version of the poems which we could have.

This was a poet who in her whole lifetime saw only seven of her poems in print, and wanted to see no more; so graceless was the editorial touch which altered her originals. After her death the manuscripts fell into various hands, and their possession was contested; the public critic was very bold if he cared to offer much comment on the published verse when he could not know if the lines as they were printed were the lines as they had been written. The scandal lasted too long even for a community of untidy literary habits. But now it is as if suddenly, say about ten years ago, there had arisen a shamed sense of literary honor, of an obligation overdue to the public domain; and with it a burst of philanthropic action all round. The Dickinson Collection is now housed forever in Harvard's library, and Mr. Johnson was ready at the earliest possible moment to go to work on it, along with a troop of willing helpers. The Collection is complete except for one considerable set of manuscripts, and that too was made available...

(This entire section contains 5088 words.)

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for his edition.

Many editors and critics will follow up Mr. Johnson's sound labors. For example, the Dickinson reader is not going to repair to the Harvard library, nor even as a rule possess himself of Mr. Johnson's three volumes, but will require a Dickinson Anthology, or Selected Poems Edition; and he will probably get more than one. Shall we say that the poems which are destined to become a common public property might be in the proportion of one out of seventeen of the 1,775? They will hardly be more. But it will take time to tell.

And even when the poems are selected there will be hundreds of times when the editors will have to make hard decisions about straightening out some of those informalities in the manuscripts. Emily Dickinson was a little home-keeping person, and while she had a proper notion of the final destiny of her poems she was not one of those poets who had advanced to that late stage of operations where manuscripts are prepared for the printer, and the poet's diction has to make concessions to the publisher's style-book. She never found reason to abandon her habit of capitalizing her key-words, but her editor will have to reckon with certain conventions. He will respect those capitalizations, I think, even while he is removing them. They are honorable, and in their intention they are professional, and even the poet who does not practice them must have wanted to; as a way of conferring dignity upon his poetic objects, or as a mythopoetic device, to push them a little further into the fertile domain of myth. The editor will also feel obliged to substitute some degree of formal punctuation for the cryptic dashes which are sprinkled over the poet's lines; but again reluctantly, because he will know that the poet expected the sharp phrases to fall into their logical places for any reader who might be really capable of the quick intuitional processes of verse.

Since I have intimated so strong a sense of the event, I must not wait a moment longer to exhibit some of the characteristic poems, in order that my reader and I may have exactly the same poet before us. I give the poems not quite as they were written, but altered with all possible forbearance. For in none of the poems in its manuscript form has there been so much as a single line wasted on a title, and I shall identify ours by the serial numbers and the dates which Mr. Johnson has assigned to them.

And since this was a strange poet, I shall begin with two of the stranger poems; they deal with Death, but they are not from the elegiac poems about suffering the death of others, they are previsions of her own death. In neither does Death present himself as absolute in some brutal majesty, nor in the role of God's dreadful minister. The transaction is homely and easy, for the poet has complete sophistication in these matters, having attended upon deathbeds, and knowing that the terror of the event is mostly for the observers. In the first poem a sort of comic or Gothic relief interposes, by one of those homely inconsequences which may be observed in fact to attend even upon desperate human occasions.

465 (1862) I heard a fly buzz when I died. The stillness in the room Was like the stillness in the air Between the heaves of storm. The eyes around had rung them dry, And breaths were gathering firm For that last onset when the King Be witnessed in the room. I willed my keepsakes, signed away What portion of me be Assignable, and then it was There interposed a fly, With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz Between the light and me; And then the windows failed, and then I could not see to see.

The other poem is a more imaginative creation. It is a single sustained metaphor, all of it analogue or "vehicle" as we call it nowadays, though the character called Death in the vehicle would have borne the same name in the real situation or "tenor." Death's victim now is the shy spinster, so he presents himself as a decent civil functionary making a call upon a lady to take her for a drive.

712 (1863) Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves, And Immortality. We slowly drove, He knew no haste, And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His civility. We passed the school, where children strove At recess, in the ring. We passed the fields of gazing grain, We passed the Setting Sun. Or rather, He passed us; The dews drew quivering and chill, For only gossamer my gown, My tippet only tulle. We paused before a House that seemed A swelling of the ground; The roof was scarcely visible, The cornice in the ground. Since then 'tis centuries, and yet Feels shorter than the day I first surmised the horses' heads Were toward Eternity.

Next, two little extravagances or fantasies. The first is like a Mother Goose rhyme, with a riddle which it takes a moment to interpret:

1032 (1865) Who is the East? The Yellow Man Who may be Purple if he can That carries in the Sun. Who is the West? The Purple Man Who may be Yellow if he can That lets Him out again.

The other exhibits an action such as would be commonplace for the Portrait of the Artist as a Kind Maternal Woman, but that the setting could only have existed in her exotic imagination:

566 (1862) A Dying Tiger moaned for drink; I hunted all the sand, I caught the dripping of a rock And bore it in my hand. His mighty balls in death were thick, But searching I could see A vision on the retina Of water, and of me. 'Twas not my blame, who sped too slow; 'Twas not his blame, who died While I was reaching him; but 'twas— The fact that he was dead.

The concluding line is flat, like some ironic line by Hardy. Its blankness cancels out the expostulation we had expected, and pure contingency replaces the vicious agent we would have blamed, and there is nothing rational to be said. Who is going to blame a fact?

And of course there must be some poems about nature. It is still true that the spontaneous expression of our metaphysical moods—that consciousness whose objects are emphatically not those given to the senses—is to be found in the incessant and spacious drama of the natural world. Poets are much more concerned with earth than with Heaven. And why not? Natural events have visibility, and audibility too; yet they seem touched with Heavenly influences, and, if you like, they are sufficiently mysterious. But it is common belief among readers (among men readers at least) that the woman poet as a type is only too familiar with this philosophy, and makes flights into nature rather too easily and upon errands which do not have metaphysical importance enough to justify so radical a strategy. And they might want to cite many poems by Emily Dickinson, concerning her bees and butterflies perhaps. But see the following:

1084 (1866) At half past three, a single bird Unto a silent sky Propounded but a single term Of cautious melody. At half past four, experiment Had subjugated test, And lo, Her silver Principle Supplanted all the rest. At half past seven, Element Nor implement was seen, And Place was where the Presence was, Circumference between.

The times are half past three and half past four in the morning and half past seven in the evening of a summer's day. Where has the music gone, the silver Principle, when it grows dark? To some far corner of Circumference, the poet says, and that is a term she is fond of using. Perhaps it means: the World of all the Mysteries, where Principles have not necessarily perished when they have vanished. There is great metaphysical weight in that Circumference—as there is in Principle and Element, or in Immortality and Eternity in the second Death poem above. I suggest that there is a special Americanism here. It has been remarked how much of our political feeling has turned on abstract key-words like Democracy and Equality and Federal Principle and Constitution, and even now perhaps turns on new ones like United Nations and Conference at the Summit. These are resonant words, and the clang of them is Latinical and stylistically exact yet provocative. Our poet had a feeling for the metaphysical associations of her Latinities, and almost always invoked them when she dealt with ultimate or theological topics: the topics of the Soul. But here is a small nature poem which is of a more conventional order:

757 (1863) The Mountains grow unnoticed; Their purple figures rise Without attempt, Exhaustion, Assistance, or Applause. In Their Eternal Faces The Sun with just delight Looks along, and last, and golden, For fellowship at night.(Further Poems of Emily Dickinson Copyright 1929 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.)

And finally, a group of personal poems. These will be from the large category of Emily Dickinson's love poems. They begin in 1861, when the poet has turned thirty, and now she professes experiences which become decisive upon the direction of her poetry. These crucial poems often have an erotic tone which is unmistakable. The dates assigned to these as to all poems are based on the handwriting, which changes perceptibly from one period to another. It changed most of all in 1861. The strokes became bold and long and uneven, tending toward the separation of the characters, and registering, for Mr. Johnson's expert staff, strong emotional disturbance. The boldness persisted into other years, of course, but the unevenness subsided, as if to witness a gradually achieved serenity. The first of our poems testifies to a mutual flame that has been fully acknowledged and enacted, and this is the time of that despair which comes after its denial.

293 (1861) I got so I could hear his name Without—tremendous gain— That stop-sensation on my Soul, And thunder in the room. I got so I could walk across That angle in the floor, Where he turned so, and I turned how, And all our sinew tore. I got so I could stir the box In which his letters grew, Without that forcing, in my breath, As staples driven through; Could dimly recollect a Grace (I think they call it "God") Renowned to ease extremity, When formula had failed; And shape my hands, petition's way, Tho' ignorant of a word That Ordination utters; My business with the Cloud; If any Power behind it be Not subject to Despair, It cares in some remoter way For so minute affair

As Misery—: Itself too great For interrupting more.(Further Poems of Emily Dickinson. Copyright 1929 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.)

And the next poem is dated in the following year, and continues a little more resignedly in that same stage after first love when it is enough to receive new letters from the beloved.

636 (1862) The way I read a letter's this: 'Tis first I lock the door, And push it with my fingers next, My transport to make sure; And then I go the furthest off To counteract a knock, Then draw my little letter forth And slowly pick the lock; Then glancing narrow at the wall, And narrow at the floor For firm conviction of a mouse Not exorcised before, Peruse how infinite I am To no one that you know, And sigh for lack of Heaven, but not The Heaven God bestow.

But now we come to the famous poem which displays the image of the Soul electing her lover to be now her one "Society," her communing Fellow Soul even though physically absent. Renunciation has succeeded upon Despair; it has its own happiness and even an arrogance befitting a Soul assured by Heaven.

303 (1862) The Soul selects her own Society, Then shuts the Door; To her divine Majority Present no more. Unmoved she notes the Chariots pausing At her low gate; Unmoved though Emperor be kneeling Upon her Mat. 've known her from an ample nation Choose One, Then close the valves of her attention Like Stone.

Our final poem stands only three poems later than this, in Mr. Johnson's arrangement. If that is approximately correct, the speaker has learned her lesson fast, almost too fast for the human drama becoming to her situation. She is talking now about those Superior Instants when the Soul's Society is God, and all that is of earth, including the beloved, is withdrawn. This is a Platonic or a Christian climax, and the last fruits of renunciation. I cannot think it represents a moment quite characteristic of this poet, or of poets generically. She indicates in many poems her acceptance of the saying that in Heaven there is no marrying nor giving in marriage. But the Colossal Substance of existence there is made magnificent by the flood of Latinities, which appear to render their objects with technical precision, and yet really point to objects that are ineffable.

306 (but undated) The Soul's Superior instants Occur to Her alone, When friend and earth's occasion Have infinite withdrawn, Or She Herself ascended To too remote a Height For lower recognition Than Her Omnipotent. This Mortal Abolition Is seldom, but as fair As Apparition, subject To Autocratic Air; Eternity's disclosure To favorites, a few, Of the Colossal Substance Of Immortality.(The Single Hound. Copyright 1914 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.)

Emily Dickinson is one of those poets who make almost constant use of the first person singular. If the poems are not autobiographical in the usual sense of following actual experience—and it is not likely that they do, inasmuch as the poetic imagination is scarcely going to consent to be held captive to historical fact, and prevented from its own free flight—then they are autobiographical in the special sense of being true to an imagined experience, and that will be according to the dominant or total image which the artist proposes to make up for herself. I suppose it is the common understanding that a poem records an experience which is at least possible, and we enter into it, by and large, because it is better than our actual experience; it does us good, and it gratifies those extravagant aspirations which we cherish secretly though proudly for ourselves. And as Emily Dickinson went from poem to poem, I must suppose that she was systematically adapting her own experience, which by common standards was a humdrum affair of little distinction, into the magnificent image of her Soul which she has created in the poems. It may have been imaginary in the first instance, but it becomes more and more actual as she finds the courage to live by it.

There was another public event associated with the definitive edition: in the appearance of Emily Dickinson; An Interpretive Biography, written by Mr. Johnson himself, and published at the same time as the poems and by the same house. I have a good deal of confidence in Mr. Johnson's setting out of both the primary or original image of Emily Dickinson as an actual person and the later and greater image of her literary personality. It is a good book, though far too short and lacking in documentation to be a definitive one; sometimes Mr. Johnson tells his findings without taking his readers into his confidence by showing them his evidences. But as compared with earlier biographers he is superior indeed.

It is the love poems which are decisive for the literary personality of Emily Dickinson. Most probably the poems would not have amounted to much if the author had not finally had her own romance, enabling her to fulfill herself like any other woman. She always had quick and warm affections for people, and she loved nature spontaneously with what Wordsworth might almost have called a passion. But here are the love poems, with their erotic strain. Now it happens that the god was in this instance again a blind god, or perhaps we should allow also for the possibility that the style of the romance fitted exactly into a secret intention of her own—at any rate it still appears to be the fact, for Mr. Johnson confirms it, that her grand attachment was directed to the person of a blameless clergyman who was already married. She could never have him. We know next to nothing as to what passed between them, for his letters to her have all been destroyed, except apparently for one letter, pastoral but friendly in its tone. And what becomes of the experience asserted so decently yet passionately in the poems? That was all imaginary, says Mr. Johnson roundly, if I follow him; and does not even add that it was necessary to the effectiveness of the poems. It would seem very likely that he is right about the fact; it is so much "in character," insofar as we are able to understand herself and her situation. Mr. Johnson is himself a native and a historian of her region, the valley of the Connecticut at Amherst, where in her time the life and the metaphysics were still in the old Puritan tradition, being almost boastfully remote from what went on across the state in Boston. In her Protestant community the gentle spinsters had their assured and useful place in the family circle, they had what was virtually a vocation. In a Roman community they might have taken the veil. But Emily Dickinson elected a third vocation, which was the vocation of poet. And the point is that we cannot say she deviated in life from her honest status of spinster, and did not remain true to the vows of this estate, so to speak, as did the innumerable company of her sisters. But it was otherwise for the literary personality which she now projected.

We can put this most topically nowadays, perhaps, if we say that about 1861, when Emily Dickinson had come into her thirties, she assumed in all seriousness her vocation of poet and therefore, and also, what William Butler Yeats would have called her poet's mask: the personality which was antithetical to her natural character and identical with her desire. By nature gentle but indecisive, plain in looks, almost anonymous in her want of any memorable history, she chose as an artist to claim a heroic history which exhibited first a great passion, then renunciation and honor, and a passage into the high experiences of a purified Soul. That is the way it would seem to figure out. And we have an interesting literary parallel if we think in these terms about the poetry of her contemporary, Walt Whitman. A good deal of notice has been paid lately to Whitman by way of pointing out that he was an impostor, because the aggressive mas was only assumed. But that would be Walt Whitman's mask. Whitman and Emily Dickinson were surely the greatest forces of American poetry in the nineteenth century, and both had found their proper masks. (Poe would be the third force, I think; just as original, but not a poetic force that was at the same time a moral force.)

But in Emily Dickinson's own time and place she could not but be regarded as an unusually ineffective instance of the weaker sex. She was a spinster, becoming more and more confirmed in that character. And not a useful spinster, but a recluse, refusing to enter into the world. Next, an eccentric; keeping to her room, absenting herself even from household and kitchen affairs. Perhaps a sort of poet, but what of that? The town of Amherst knew she could make verses for Saint Valentine's Day, and was always ready to send somebody a poem to accompany a flower, or a poem to turn a compliment or a condolence; once in a long while it was known that a poem got into print; but it scarcely mattered. It is a great joke now, though not at her expense, to discover with Mr. Johnson that the poems sent out on these occasions were often from her very finest store.

The slighting of the professional poet in her life-time is made up for in our time by especial gallantries on her behalf and an exquisite hatred for those who neglected her. Perhaps the most satisfying image of her, from this perspective, would now see Emily Dickinson as a kind of Cinderella, in a variant version of the story with a different moral. The original story surely sprang from man's complacent image of woman. The Ur-Cinderella scrubbed away at her pots and pans and never stopped until the kind Prince came by and took her away to his palace, where virtue had its reward. Our own Cinderella could do without the Prince; she preferred her clergyman, and he did not take her anywhere. She proceeded to take her own self upstairs, where she lived, happy ever after with her memories, her images, and her metaphysics.

She busied herself with writing, revising, and sometimes fabulously perfecting those slight but intense pieces; for the eye of the future. When there were enough of them she would stitch them down the sides together into a packet, like a little book, and put it into the cherry bureau drawer. We may suppose that she did not fail to wonder sometimes, in that ironical wisdom which steadied and protected her: What if her little packets might never catch the great public eye? But this was not her responsibility.

Among her most literate acquaintances it is scarcely possible that there was one (or more than one, says Mr. Johnson) who would not have told her, had it not been too cruel, that if she was clever enough to know the accomplishments it took to make a real poet, she would be clever enough to know better than try to be one. Consider her disabilities. She had a good school education which gave her some Latin, but after a year in Miss Lyon's advanced school for young ladies at Mount Holyoke she did not return, and we cannot quite resolve the ambiguity of whether this was due to her wish or to her poor health. She read well but not widely; the literature which gave her most was the hymnbook. And she was amazed when she was asked why she did not travel; was there not enough of the world where she was already? When she made her decision to be a poet, it is true that she sent some poems to a man of letters, and wanted to know if she should continue. The gentleman answered kindly, and entered into a lifelong correspondence with her, but did not fail to put matters on a proper footing by giving her early to understand that she might as well not seek to publish her verse. And she made little effort to find another counsellor. Perhaps it seemed to her that there was no particular correlation between being a poet and having the literary companionship of one's peers.

Of course all her disabilities worked to her advantage. Let us have a look at that hymnbook. She had at hand, to be specific, a household book which was well known in her period and culture, Watts' Christian Psalmody. (Her father's copy is still to be seen.) In it are named, and illustrated with the musical notations, the Common Meter, the Long, the Short, and a dozen variations which had been meticulously carried out in the church music of her New England. Her own poems used these forms with great accuracy, unless sometimes she chose to set up variations of her own, or to relax and loosen the rules. Since she was perfect in her command of these meters, they gave her a formal mastery over the substantive passions of the verse. But since these meters excluded all others, their effect was limiting. Her meters are all based upon Folk Line, the popular form of verse, and the oldest in our language. I have been used to saying that the great classics of this meter are the English Ballads and Mother Goose, both very fine, and certainly finer than most of the derivative verse done by our poets since the middle of the eighteenth century. Hereafter I must remember to add another to these classics: the Protestant hymnbooks, but especially the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is their derivative. Folk Line is disadvantageous if it is used on the wrong poetic occasion, or if it denies to the poet the use of English Pentameter when that would be more suitable. Pentameter is the staple of what we may call the studied or "university" poetry, and it is capable of containing and formalizing many kinds of substantive content which would be too complex for Folk Line. Emily Dickinson appears never to have tried it.

The final disability which I have to mention, and which for me is the most moving, has been most emphatically confirmed in Mr. Johnson's book. Her sensibility was so acute that it made her excessively vulnerable to personal contacts. Intense feeling would rush out as soon as sensibility apprehended the object, and flood her consciousness to the point of helplessness. When visitors called upon the family, she might address them from an inner door and then hide herself; but if deep affection was involved she was likely to send word that she must be excused altogether, and post a charming note of apology later. She kept up her relations with many friends, but they were conducted, more and more by correspondence; and in that informal genre she was of the best performers of the century. The happy encounter was as painful as the grievous one. But we need not distress ourselves too sorely over this disability when we observe the sequel. It made her practice a kind of art on all the social occasions; conducting herself beautifully though rather theatrically in the oral exchanges, and writing her notes in language styled and rhythmed remarkably like her poetry.

It was even better than that. The poet's Soul, she might have said, must have its housekeeping, its economy, and that must be severe in proportion as the profuse sensibility, which is the poet's primary gift, tends to dissipate and paralyze its force; till nothing remains but a kind of exclamatory gaping. The Soul must learn frugality, that is, how to do with a little of the world, and make the most of it; how to concentrate, and focus, and come remorseless and speedy to the point. That is a kind of renunciation; all good poets are familiar with it. And critics, too, I believe. Do we not all profess a faith in the kind of art which looks coolly upon the turgid deliverance of sensibility and disciplines it into beauty?


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1018

Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson 1830–1886

American poet.

Although only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime—all anonymously and some apparently without her consent—Dickinson is considered a premier American poet. Choosing the lyric as her form, Dickinson wrote on a variety of subjects, including nature, love, death, and immortality. As she honed the lyric format, Dickinson developed a unique style, characterized by compressed expression, the use of enjambment, and an exploration of the possibilities of language. In 1955 the publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson's complete poems prompted renewed scholarly interest in her work. Modern criticism has focused on Dickinson's style, structure, use of language, and the various themes found in her poetry. Some critics have examined these same issues from a feminist viewpoint. Regardless of the critical angle, most modern scholars incorporate some discussion of Dickinson's life experiences into their examinations of her work.

Biographical Information

Critical and popular interest in Dickinson's life has been fueled by the mythology that has grown up around the limited factual knowledge available. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer and an invalid mother, Dickinson's schoolwork was often interrupted by time spent at home learning domestic chores. Beginning in 1835, she spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From there, Dickinson advanced to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, where her studies were influenced by New England Puritanism. This, together with Dickinson's Unitarian upbringing, heavily influenced her poetry's structure—the lyric form she used was a revision of the hymn quatrain—as well as its content—religious themes are the focus of many of her poems. Despite these influences on her work, though, personal faith eluded her and she remained an agnostic throughout her life.

After her year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned to her family's home where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. From 1851 to 1855,

she made a few brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Biographers speculate that on one trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment from this affair triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. This, and other rumors of romantic entanglements, are largely conjecture; however, it is known that her reclusiveness intensified over the years. Her personal habits—always wearing white, never leaving her home, refusing to receive visitors—earned her a reputation for eccentricity. In 1874, Dickinson's father died unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her invalid mother, who died in 1882. Dickinson died in 1886 after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney disorder.

Major Works

Over the course of her writing career, Dickinson composed nearly eighteen hundred poems, all in the form of brief lyrics. She explored a variety of subjects: the austerity and beauty of nature, experiences of love and loss, and her own skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality, as well as her fascination with death. Drawing heavily from biblical sources and influenced by such poets as George Herbert, Shakespeare, and John Keats, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. She experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes, and also employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, thereby creating a poetic style that further distinguished her verse from contemporary American poetry.

Critical Reception

Initial criticism of Dickinson's work, following the 1890 publication of Poems of Emily Dickinson, was largely unfavorable, yet her work received widespread popular acclaim. Willis Buckingham has noted that readers in the 1890s often praised Dickinson's "inspired" thoughts and emotions rather than her poetic technique. Modern critics, though, have come to appreciate Dickinson's accomplishments in language and poetic structure. Margaret Dickie has challenged critics who have attempted to provide a narrative analysis of Dickinson's work by studying her poetry as a whole. Dickie maintains that the poems were written as lyrics, and should be examined as such. Karen Oakes has explored Dickinson's use of metonymy to establish an intimate, feminine discourse with her readers. Other critics, such as Judy Jo Small and Timothy Morris, have analyzed Dickinson's rhyme structure, Small noting the acoustical effects of this structure, and Morris observing how Dickinson's patterns of rhyme and enjambment developed over time.

Many critics have also explored the various themes of Dickinson's poetry against the backdrop of events in her personal life. Among these are Jane Donahue Eberwein, who has studied the poems concerning love and its redemption, and Nadean Bishop, who has focused on Dickinson's spirituality, specifically the poems that seem to indicate the poet's rejection of religious dogma in favor of a private version of God and heaven. Paula Hendrickson, who has examined Dickinson's poems that focus on the precise moment of death, notes that these poems are typically treated as a subcategory of the death poem genre and are rarely treated individually.

Power is another of Dickinson's themes that has received a great deal of critical attention. R. McClure Smith has examined how Dickinson uses the trope of seduction to explore her relationship to patriarchal power. Feminist critics have also found the issue of power of great significance in Dickinson's work. Cheryl Walker maintains that while many feminist critics try to assert that Dickinson's life was "a model of successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," in fact, the poet was attracted to masculine forms of power. Paula Bennett, on the other hand, has contended that Dickinson's relationships with women were more significant than her struggles with men, male power, or male tradition. Bennett argues that Dickinson's relationship with women provided her with the comfort and safety necessary for the poet to explore her own sexuality. This contention, Bennett states, is supported by a reading of Dickinson's poems that recognizes their homoeroticism and use of clitoral imagery.

The enigmatic details surrounding Dickinson's life continue to fascinate readers and critics alike. Yet it is the technical originality of her poetry, the variety of themes she addressed, and the range and depth of intellectual and emotional experience she explored that have established Dickinson's esteemed reputation as an American poet.

David J. M. Higgins (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6255

SOURCE: "Emily Dickinson's Prose," in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard B. Sewell, Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 162-77.

[In the following essay, originally part of a 1961 doctoral dissertation, Higgins studies Dickinson's letters, observing that in both prose and poetry Dickinson reduced thoughts and ideas to their essences, Higgins discusses the method by which Dickinson composed her letters and her habit of combining poetry with her prose.]

An earnest letter is or should be a life-warrant or death-warrant, for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because "unloaded," but that touched "goes off?"

—Emily Dickinson

"Last night the Warings had their novel wedding festival." T. W. Higginson wrote to his sister in 1876. "The Woolseys were bright as usual & wrote some funny things for different guests—one imaginary letter to me from my partially cracked poetess at Amherst, who writes to me & signs 'Your scholar'" (II, 570).1

The partially cracked poetess, Emily Dickinson, had no idea her letters were shown to strangers or parodied, but she knew they were unusual. A few days before Higginson enjoyed the Woolseys' imitation of her style, Emily had sent his wife Emerson's Representative Men as "a little Granite Book you can lean upon." In lieu of a signature she had written, "I am whom you infer—" (II, 569).

Mrs. Higginson had no trouble inferring. The prose of Emily Dickinson was as unmistakable as her poetry. In both she tried to condense thought to its essence in epigram, trusting her reader to solve the puzzling paradoxes and puns and ambiguities along the way. While her contemporaries gushed pages of nature description, Emily achieved single sentences like "The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear today for the first the river in the tree" (II, 452). Such impressionism, for all its economy and beauty, must have sounded strange to mid-Victorian ears. Prose, especially in letters, was supposed to be prosaic. Emily was aware of this: about 1865 she parodied the flatness of most correspondence by writing a poem in the form of a letter:

Bee! I'm expecting you! Was saying Yesterday To Somebody you know That you were due— The Frogs got Home last Week— Are settled, and at work— Birds, mostly back— The Clover warm and thick— You'll get my Letter by The seventeenth; Reply Or better, be with me— Yours, Fly.2

If Emily Dickinson's letters did not sound like Fly's, it was because the subtlety and surprise of her thoughts required subtle and surprising words.

A biographical portrait of Emily Dickinson is necessarily the portrait of a letter-writer. Emily's physical existence in the Dickinson homestead was merely a round of household chores, aside from her writing. Her poems, except for those sent to friends as messages, are doubtful sources of fact. There are few accounts of her conversation because she preferred to write to her friends rather than see them. Indeed, some of her most intimate friendships were conducted almost entirely by mail. When, in her early thirties, she decided against publishing her poems, letters became the sole vehicles for her poetry. Her eventual publication and her present rank as a world poet depend to a great extent on the letters she wrote to Colonel Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors. Higginson visited Emily only twice; Mrs. Todd talked with her between rooms and around corners but never met her face to face.

It is not a great exaggeration, then, to say that Emily Dickinson lived through the mail. Such a life is a hindrance to biography: the usual travels, public appearances, meetings with other poets, criticism by contemporaries, and so on, all are lacking. On the other hand, her very remoteness from her neighbors gives her posthumous audience an advantage. Today's reader of Emily's letters can know her almost as well as the friends who received the letters nearly a century ago. In fact, the modern reader may know her better than the correspondents who neither met her nor had access to her letters to others. For Emily Dickinson was audience-conscious; she carefully adapted each correspondence to her estimate of the reader's capacities. Today it is possible to compare letters and to see that Emily sent her most prosaic messages to dull friends, her most striking, oblique flashes of thought to those who would grasp them.

Sometimes she misjudged. She thought Helen Hunt Jackson, for instance, acute enough to understand the most esoteric letters. Though Mrs. Jackson was the only contemporary to call Emily Dickinson a great poet, she could not measure up to Emily's pronouncement, "Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never" (III, 889). In October 1875 Emily sent the following wedding congratulation to Helen Jackson:

Have I a word but Joy? E. Dickinson. Who fleeing from the Spring The Spring avenging fling To Dooms of Balm—(II, 544)

Mrs. Jackson returned the note, asking for an explanation. Emily did not reply, of course. To do so would have been like explaining a joke.

Whatever the disadvantages of society-by-mail, there were rewards as well. Emily Dickinson lived deliberately and preferred to present herself to the world only by deliberate art. On the rare occasions when Emily met her friends, she made almost theatrical entrances, dressed completely in white and carrying flowers. Her conversations at such times are said to have been brilliant, but a conversation can have no second draft. Letters, however, can be deliberate creations from salutation to signature, and the letters of Emily Dickinson show a great deal of "stage presence."

Emily's creation of a letter might begin years before she mailed the final draft. Among her papers at the time of her death were hundreds of scraps and drafts of her writing. Some were torn corners of envelopes or backs of grocery lists; others were fair copies ready for mailing, or letters marred by corrections. The collection included poetry and prose in all stages of composition. It was the scrapbasket of Emily's workshop and she kept it as other New England women saved string and wrapping paper and ribbon, against a future need.

The greater part of the scrapbasket collection is poetry, but there is much prose, almost entirely in the handwriting of Emily's last ten years, 1876-86. Certainly she made earlier collections: phrases and whole sentences were repeated in letters written years apart. Probably she systematically destroyed all but the last group.

Emily jotted sentences as they occurred to her while she worked in the kitchen or garden. The roughest of the scraps were penciled scrawls, almost illegible, on any handy bit of paper. Later, in her room, she added them to her workshop collection. When she wrote letters she chose appropriate fragments and worked them into her prose. Sometimes the letter as a whole would pass through two or more drafts before it satisfied her. Meantime she would have chosen poems from the scrapbasket or from her "packets"3 and fitted them also into her letter. The final writing—the letter her correspondent actually received—might look spontaneous, but it was the last of several creative stages.

An illustration of Emily's method of composition is a letter of 1885 to Helen Hunt Jackson. The message Emily mailed is missing, but all the preliminary drafts remain. On February 3, 1885, Mrs. Jackson wrote to Emily from California. She described her convalescence from a badly broken leg, and the natural beauty of Santa Monica:

—As I write—(in bed, before breakfast,) I am looking straight off toward Japan—over a silver sea—my foreground is a strip of high grass, and mallows, with a row of Eucalyptus trees sixty or seventy feet high:—and there is a positive cackle of linnets.

Searching, here, for Indian relics, especially the mortars or bowls hollowed out of stone, … I have found two Mexican women called Ramona, from whom I have bought the Indian mortars.—

I hope you are well—and at work—I wish I knew what your portfolios, by this time, hold. (III, 869)

The "portfolios" Mrs. Jackson wondered about contained, among other things, the following prose fragments: "Strength to perish is sometimes withheld" and "Afternoon and the West and the gorgeous nothings which compose the sunset keep their high Appointment Clogged only with Music like the Wheels of Birds" (III, 868). The final phrase appeared in another fragment somewhat altered: "It is very still in the world now—Thronged only with Music like the Decks of Birds and the Seasons take their hushed places like figures in a Dream—" (III, 868).

Early in March, Emily composed her reply to Mrs. Jackson. Her first draft included the first two fragments, as well as a poem which Emily had used in a letter to Eben J. Loomis the previous January:

Dear friend—

To reproach my own Foot in behalf of your's, is involuntary, and finding myself, no solace in "whom he loveth he chasteneth" your Valor astounds me. It was only a small Wasp, said the French physician, repairing the sting, but the strength to perish is sometimes withheld, though who but you could tell a Foot.

Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy And I am richer then, than all my Fellow Men. Is it becoming me to dwell so wealthily When at my very Door are those possessihg more, In abject poverty?

That you compass "Japan" before you breakfast, not in the least surprises me, clogged only with the Music, like the Wheels of Birds.

Thank you for hoping I am well. Who could be ill in March, that Month of proclamation? Sleigh Bells and Jays contend in my Matinee, and the North surrenders, instead of the South, a reverse of Bugles.

Pity me, however, I have finished Ramona.

Would that like Shakespere, it were just published! Knew I how to pray, to intercede for your Foot were intuitive—but I am but a Pagan.

Of God we ask one favor, That we may be forgiven—(III, 866)

At this point the draft ends. The second draft continues to the end of the poem, adding, "May I know once more, and that you are saved?" It is signed, "Your Dickinson."

The greater part of the letter, answering Mrs. Jackson's, occurred to Emily as she wrote her first draft. The changes from one draft to the next are minor, but they are an artist's changes. The separate origin of the prose fragments seems to have caused most difficulty. Emily was dissatisfied with the words which introduced "Take all away from me…. " She cut out portions of the second draft and rearranged them, in effect creating a third draft. "But the strength to perish is sometimes withheld" finally became a separate sentence at the end of the poem. The second fragment was replaced by the third, its alternate form: "That you glance at Japan as you breakfast, not in the least surprises me, thronged only with Music, like the Decks of Birds" (III, 867).

Emily's fragmentary prose could serve more than one purpose. Another 1885 letter adapts the last quoted scrap to the memory of Judge Otis Lord: "He did not tell me he 'sang' to you, though to sing in his presence was involuntary, thronged only with Music, like the Decks of Birds" (III, 861).

The exact point at which Emily Dickinson became conscious of prose style remains obscure, but it certainly was early. In the first months of 1850, when she was nineteen, she wrote several letters in an exaggerated rhetoric which was nearly metrical. To her uncle Joel Norcross, who had failed to write to her after promising to do so, Emily depicted a light-hearted apocalyptic vision:

And I dreamed—and beheld a company whom no man may number—all men in their youth—all strong and stout-hearted—nor feeling their burdens for strength—nor waxing faint—nor weary. Some tended their flocks—and some sailed on the sea—and yet others kept gay stores, and deceived the foolish who came to buy. They made life one summer day—they danced to the sound of the lute—they sang old snatches of song—and they quaffed the rosy wine—One promised to love his friend and one vowed to defraud no poor—and one 'man told a lie to his niece—they all did sinfully—and their lives were not yet taken.

The letter went on to picture the forgetful uncle in hell and to deliver a series of curses: "You villain without rival—unparalleled [sic] doer of crimes—scoundrel unheard of before—disturber of public peace—'creation's blot and blank'—state's prison filler—magnum bonum promise maker—harum scarum promise breaker—" (I. 78). The final rhyme undoubtedly was intentional. A valentine letter of the following month, published in the Amherst College Indicator (and incidentally the only prose of Emily Dickinson known to have been published in her lifetime) contains three pieces of verse written as prose. The longest, with its typically Dickinsonian off-rhymes, can be read as four long lines or eight short ones: "Our friendship sir, shall endure till sun and moon shall wane no more, till stars shall set, and victims rise to grace the final sacrifice" (I, 92).

The first hints of Emily's later prose came in letters of 1854 to an Amherst College student, Henry Vaughan Emmons. Among the long-winded sentimental letters Emily was writing to others appear messages like this:

Friend. I look in my casket and miss a pearl—I fear you intend to defraud me. Please not forget your promise to pay "mine own, with usury." I thank you for Hypatia, and ask you what it means?(I, 294)

Emily exchanged poems with Emmons and they discussed books. The tone of her letters to him became the one she adopted when writing to men of letters—especially Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a few years later. Eventually it spread to almost all her correspondence.

Letters of the mid-'fifties suggest the existence of a prose scrapbasket. In January 1855 Emily wrote to her brother's fiancée Susan Gilbert, "I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from that silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in …" (II, 315). The next year Emily used the final sentence again, altering it to fit the departure of her cousin John Graves: "Ah John—Gone? Then I lift the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay another in, unto the Resurrection—" (II, 330). In 1859 she wrote to Mrs. Joseph Haven, "Thank you for recollecting me in the sweet moss—which with your memory, I have lain in a little box, unto the Resurrection" (II, 357).

During the 1860's Emily seems to have repeated herself very little. Perhaps she was more inventive than before or after; more likely, though, she was conducting her correspondences so individually that few sentences appropriate to one could be used in another. The letters to Colonel Higginson, for example, were far more mannered than those to her cousins Louisa4 and Frances Norcross or her friend Mrs. J. G. Holland, far less ardent and frightened than those to Samuel Bowles. It was only after her father's death in 1874 that the several variant styles began to approach a single manner. In her last years only a few of her most intimate correspondents—the Norcrosses, Judge Lord, and Mrs. Holland—received letters distinctly separate from a general style.

The legendary Emily Dickinson—the one about whom a number of novels and plays and pseudo-biographies have been written—is a romantic figure. She is imagined as completely remote from the life of her generation, a classic artist-in-a-garret (in all but the standard poverty), unknown, unrecognized by her contemporaries. She writes because of a hopeless love and for the same reason becomes a total recluse at an early age.

The real Emily was just enough like the mythical to keep the legend alive. In the last fifteen years of her life (she was fifty-five when she died) she secluded herself from all but children, servants, doctors, immediate family, and a few friends. But her way of life was as deliberate as her poems and letters. Though she avoided physical contact with most of her friends, they remained vivid envoys of the daily world, and, more important, of the world of arts.

For a shy spinster in a small town, Emily Dickinson knew a surprising number of notable contemporaries. Her regular correspondents, all but a few, were known to the public of the day. Among her closest friends were the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, sometimes considered second only to Henry Ward Beecher (himself a friend of the family) as a pulpit orator; Samuel Bowles, whose Springfield Republican had gained a national reputation; T. W. Higginson, a leading man of letters and reformer; Helen Hunt Jackson, author of Ramona and (in Emerson's opinion) the best poet of her time; and Josiah G. Holland, editor of Scribner's Monthly Magazine and best-selling novelist. The one man who indisputably returned Emily's love was Judge Otis P. Lord of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Many of Emily's friendships came about through the social standing of her father and brother in Amherst and the Connecticut Valley. Emily, as her sister Vinnie said, "was always watching for the rewarding person to come."5 When one did, famous or obscure, Emily began another correspondence.

At a certain level of New England society everyone knew everyone else. So it seems, at least, to the modern student of any nineteenth-century New England writer. Among Samuel Bowles's writings one finds mention of almost all of Emily's close friends. Helen Hunt Jackson, whom Emily had first known as a child, was a protégée of Higginson, a regular writer for Holland's magazine, and a friend of Bowles.

Those correspondents who were not well-known themselves were usually close to the New England Olympus. Maria Whitney, a relative of Mrs. Samuel Bowles, was the sister of three notable men—one of them the Yale philologist William Dwight Whitney, another the geologist for whom Mount Whitney, in California, was named. Emily's aunt Catherine Sweetser had received love letters from Beecher.6 Franklin B. Sanborn was a friend and biographer of Thoreau. Higginson's first wife was closely related to Ellery and William Ellery Channing. Mrs. Lucius Boltwood was a cousin of Emerson. Mabel Loomis Todd corresponded with Howells and the Thoreau family; her father, Eben J. Loomis (to whom Emily wrote several notes), had been a companion of Thoreau, Whitman, and Asa Gray. Emily's girlhood friend Emily Fowler was a granddaughter of Noah Webster. Even the thoroughly commonplace cousins Fanny and Louisa Norcross were friends of the sculptor Daniel Chester French, whom Emily had known slightly when he lived in Amherst.

The foregoing list (by no means complete) suggests how close even a recluse might be to the intellectual currents of her time. It explains how she could write to Higginson, "You ask me if I see any one—Judge Lord was with me a week in October, and I talked … once with Mr. Bowles" (II, 548). There was no need to tell which Judge Lord, which Mr. Bowles she meant. Higginson would know.

Emily Dickinson's correspondents were the only readers of the poetry she refused to publish, but she could hardly have found a more perceptive audience. Higginson and Helen Jackson shared with each other the poems and letters Emily sent them. In 1875 Higginson read and discussed some of Emily's poems in a Boston lecture on unknown poets. Mrs. Jackson memorized poems and copied them into a commonplace book. She even mentioned them to her publisher, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers, who wrote to Emily in 1882, '"H. H.' once told me that she wished you could be induced to publish a volume of poems. I should not want to say how highly she praised them, but to such an extent that I wish also that you could" (III, 726).

The survival of a handful of letters written to Emily Dickinson by Niles, Higginson, and Mrs. Jackson—most of them praising her poetry and asking her to publish—is still a mystery. In 1872 Emily told Louisa Norcross how she disposed of such requests: "Of Miss P—[perhaps Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, an editor of The Woman's Journal] I know but this, dear. She wrote me in October, requesting me to aid the world by my chirrup more. Perhaps she stated it as my duty, I don't distinctly remember, and always bum such letters, so I cannot obtain now. I replied declining" (II, 500). Just before she died, Emily asked Lavinia to burn all correspondence. Vinnie, when she carried out her sister's wish, did not read or set aside any of the letters Emily had received.7 But on March 3, 1891, Mabel Loomis Todd wrote in her diary that Vinnie had found "a lot of letters from Col. Higginson and Helen Hunt to Emily—thank Heaven!"8

Probably Emily herself separated these letters from the others she had received. Since she did not order Vinnie to destroy her poems, she may have hoped that letters praising them would aid in their eventual publication. Posthumous publicity would not compromise her objection to it during her lifetime. "If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her," Emily wrote to Higginson in 1862 (II, 408). Publication then was out of the question. Editors, Emily had found, tried to smooth her off-rhymes and variable metres. She even declined to answer Helen Hunt Jackson's request to be her literary executor. That request, however, was among the letters Vinnie discovered in 1891. Perhaps, at the last, Emily tried to make sure that fame would not escape her.

In a way, her own letters were guarantees of recognition. Emily often wrote in aphorisms which transcended the daily events she was describing'. The sense of royalty which she cultivated in her poems was frequent in her prose. These timeless elements have helped to keep the letters from oblivion. Even when Emily's inward royalty carried her to the brink of rudeness, her phrasing redeemed her. Mrs. Holland once made the mistake of addressing a letter to both Emily and Vinnie, and received this reply:

A mutual plum is not a plum. I was too respectful to take the pulp and do not like a stone.

Send no union letters. The soul must go by Death alone, so, it must by life, if it is a soul.

If a committee—no matter. (II, 455)

The overstatement, understatement, and paradox which characterized Emily's poetry became part of her prose. Sometimes wit, sometimes pathos was conveyed by turning a thought inside out. In December 1881, two months after J. G. Holland died, his daughter Annie was married. Emily wrote to Mrs. Holland with paradoxical optimism, "Few daughters have the immortality of a Father for a bridal gift" (III, 720). A distraught 1861 letter to the man Emily called "Master"—probably Samuel Bowles—was an attempt to convince him of her love and pain. She began,


If you saw a bullet hit a Bird—and he told you he wasn't shot—you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word.

One more drop from the gash that stains your Daisy's bosom—then would you believe? Thomas' faith in anatomy was stronger than his faith in faith. (II, 373)

Emily's anguish was genuine, but she could not resist a bon mot.

One of her favorite devices was the inclusion of poetry in the body of a letter, either in stanza form or disguised as prose. Not that all poems sent to her correspondents were made parts of the letters: the greater number of poems she gave to Higginson and to her sister-in-law Sue were enclosures on separate sheets of paper. Often, though, Emily led up to a stanza or a complete poem with a prose introduction. A love poem could become a praise of spring, for instance, by a sentence or two of preface:

Infinite March is here, and I "hered" a bluebird! Of course I am standing on my head!

Go slow, my soul, to feed thyself Upon his rare approach. Go rapid, lest competing death Prevail upon the coach. Go timid, should his testing eye Determine thee amiss, Go boldly, for thou paidst the price, Redemption for a kiss.(II, 523)

The final stanza of another love poem, "There came a day at summer's full," took on a new meaning when adapted to the memory of a friend, Mrs. Edward Dwight, whose picture Emily had just received from the bereaved husband:

Again—I thank you for the face—her memory did not need—

Sufficient troth—that she will rise— Deposed—at last—the Grave— To that new fondness—Justified by Calvaries of love—(II, 389-90)

Sometimes the prose of a letter becomes merely a setting for poetry. The rough draft of an October 1870 letter to Colonel Higginson shows how much verse Emily could crowd into a single letter:

The Riddle that we guess We speedily despise— Not anything is stale so long As Yesterday's Surprise—

The risks of Immortality are perhaps it's charm—A secure Delight suffers in enchantment—

The larger Haunted House it seems, of maturer Childhood—distant, an alarm—entered intimate at last as a neighbor's Cottage—

The Spirit said unto the Dust Old Friend, thou knewest me And Time went out to tell the news Unto Eternity—

Those of that renown personally precious harrow like a Sunset, proved but not obtained—

Tennyson knew this, "Ah Christ—if it be possible" and even in Our Lord's "that they be with me where I am," I taste interrogation.

Experiment escorts us last— His pungent company Will not allow an Axiom An Opportunity—

You speak of "tameless tastes"—A Beggar came last week—I gave him Food and Fire and as he went, "Where do you go,"

"In all the directions"— That was what you meant Too happy Time dissolves itself And leaves no remnant by— 'Tis Anguish not a Feather hath Or too much weight to fly—(II, 480-81)

Emily's handwriting, in her last years, was childlike and resembled widely-spaced printing rather than longhand. She wrote only two or three words to a line, so the poems she put into her letters were difficult to distinguish from her prose. Realizing this, she wrote messages which might be either. The following note, sent to Mary Warner Crowell in March 1885 as a bon voyage message, is a four-line stanza plus a line of prose, but the first line of the poem is separated from the others to seem a prose introduction:

Is it too late to touch you, Dear? We this moment know— Love Marine and Love terrene— Love celestial too— I give his Angels charge— Emily—(III, 865)

George F. Whicher described such letters as Emily's game of "Guess what I am thinking."9 There can be no doubt that she liked to mystify her correspondents. The number of puzzles depended upon the abilities of the recipient, as Emily judged them. There are few enigmas in the letters to Loo and Fanny Norcross, but a great many in messages to Higginson and Samuel Bowles.

One of Emily's strangest patterns of speech, her use of personal pronouns, seems less intentional. "Would it teach me now?" she asked Higginson in 1867 as if the Colonel were inanimate. There is the remote chance that this was the effect she intended, in order to show respect for her "preceptor," but more probably she began to write "it" or "they" instead of "you" and "he" for the sake of privacy. The first friend so impersonalized was "Master." Emily's use of this name, coupled with "Daisy" (herself), appears in the 1859 poems of Packet 1. In the same packet is this poem:

My friend must be a Bird— Because it flies! Mortal, my friend must be, Because it dies! Barbs has it, like a Bee! Ah, curious friend! Thou puzzlest me!10

Not a good poem, but well enough disguised. If someone in the Dickinson household had come upon the poems of Packet 1 he would have found nothing that clearly specified a man who interested Emily.

The last of three surviving letter-drafts to "Master" (with deleted words and phrases in parentheses) begins, "Oh, did I offend it—(Did'nt it want me to tell it the truth) Daisy—Daisy—offend it—who bends her smaller life to his (it's) meeker every day—who only asks—a task—(who) something to do for love of it—some little way she cannot guess to make that master glad—" (II, 391). The letter dates from about 1862, and 1862 poems also make the master impersonal. But in both poetry and prose, Emily usually slipped back into the personal before she was finished. A letter-poem to Samuel Bowles, written in 1863 or 1864, begins,

If it had no pencil Would it try mine—

Worn—now—and dull—sweet, Writing much to thee.11

Another poem (of about 1862) is an enigmatic mixture of personal and impersonal pronouns:

Why make it doubt—it hurts it so— So sick—to guess— So strong—to know—So brave—upon it's little Bed To tell the very last They said Unto Itself—and smile—and shake— For that dear—distant—dangerous—Sake— But—the Instead—the Pinching fear That Something—it did do—or dare— Offend the Vision—and it flee And They no more remember me— Nor ever turn to tell me why— Oh, Master. This is Misery—12

In this case Emily is "it," the master "They." A substitution of pronouns makes the meaning clear:

Why make me doubt? It hurts me so— So sick to guess— So strong to know— So brave, upon my little bed, To tell the very last you said Unto myself, and smile and shake For that dear, distant, dangerous sake. But the Instead—the pinching fear That something I did do or dare Offend the vision, and it flee And you no more remember me, Nor ever turn to tell me why— Oh, Master, this is misery!

Emily was aware of the strange effect she was creating in such poems. An 1862 poem begins, in its draft form,

While "it" is alive— Until Death—touches it— While "it" and I—lap one—Air—13

as if the poet could not decide whether to set off the unusual pronoun by quotation marks. In the final copy of the poem there are none.

Many of Emily Dickinson's 1862-64 poems employ "it" or "this" to refer to death, perhaps as an extension of the theme of death which runs through so many poems about the dangerously ill "Master." After 1864 the peculiar pronouns diminished. Emily called Colonel Higginson "it" in 1867, but did not repeat the word in a personal sense until December 1878, when she congratulated him on his engagement to Mary P. Thacher: "Till it has loved—no man or woman can become itself—" (II, 628). Here the problem seems to be grammatical. The construction demanded the singular pronoun, but "he" or "she," "himself" or "herself" would have been inappropriate.

Meanwhile another circumlocution had appeared in Emily's letters. She was peculiarly sensitive to the words "wife" and "husband," and often found ways to avoid them. The series of marriage poems she wrote between 1860 and 1863 establish the special meaning of the words:

I'm "wife"—I've finished that— That other state— I'm Czar—I'm "Woman" Now—…14 "My Husband"—women say— Stroking the melody—…(II, 758)

Emily began to avoid the words when she spoke of others' marriages. Like her impersonal pronouns, her oblique references to marriage were sporadic. When she spoke of the first Mrs. Higginson in the letters of 1876-78 she sometimes wrote "Mrs. Higginson," sometimes "your friend." In November 1878 she was able to write, "I had a sweet Forenoon with Mrs. Jackson recently, who brought her Husband to me for the first time—…" (II, 627), but Mr. Jackson was not always so described. Helen Hunt Jackson quoted one of the circumlocutions in an 1879 letter to Emily: '"The man I live with' (I suppose you recollect designating my husband by that curiously direct phrase) is in New York—…" (II, 639).

Colonel Higginson and Mrs. Jackson were amused by such oddities of speech. Yet obliquities also occur in Lavinia Dickinson's letters. When Mabel Loomis Todd was away from Amherst in the spring of 1883, Vinnie wrote to her about Professor Todd: "I've seen your companion once. I should be glad to lessen his loneliness in any way in my power."15 Either the sisters habitually avoided speaking directly of marriage, or Emily's substitute words crept into Vinnie's vocabulary.

Other oddities of the Dickinson prose style include archaisms and localisms. Emily's capitalization of words within the sentence may be called archaic, but it is not a problem of style, nor (usually) are the short dashes she used as a rhythmic device or in lieu of punctuation. More fundamental are her Elizabethan turns of speech, probably gained through her intimate knowledge of the King James Bible and Shakespeare. When Emily writes "What Miracles the News is!" (II, 483) one is reminded of Shakespearean constructions like "All is but toys."16 There is the flavor of Shakespeare, too, in a comment on a dead child: "The little Furniture of Loss has Lips of Dirks to stab us" (III, 679).

Emily's subjunctive was another archaism. Coupled with the New England colloquial substitution of "be" for "is," it appeared often in her poetry, occasionally in her prose. When the old-fashioned form appears in a letter, there is a good chance that a poem is present, disguised as prose. "That you be with me annuls fear" (II, 482) is strictly prose, but the following sentences makes a poem: "Too few the mornings be, too scant the nights. No lodging can be had for the delights that come to earth to stay, but no apartment find and ride away" (II, 488).

Regionalisms are most frequent in Emily's girlhood letters,17 though she wrote "a'nt" (for "isn't"), "he don't," and "eno"' when she was mature. Like her subjunctives, most of her localisms made her writing terser. One of the few exceptions is the added "that" in "because that you were coming" (II, 402) or "because that he would die" (II, 431). Occasionally Emily's expressions may mislead the modern reader. For instance, a poem sent to the Bowleses after the birth of a son in 1861 hopes that when the baby begins to talk, his scriptural "Forbid us not—" will sound "Some like 'Emily'": somewhat like "Emily."18 The conditional "did you not" for "if you did not" has misled many editors of "The Snake."

The uniqueness of Emily Dickinson's prose style does not depend on these minor oddities of diction. Rather, it lies in her originality of thought and her ability to set down her ideas in prose almost as compact and dramatic as her poetry. Emily pared all that seemed superfluous, even usual connectives, from the essence of her thought.

The letters Emily wrote were part of her art, but the life she chose made them also her conversation and autobiography. Her prose tells a great deal about her poetry, simply because the same mind conceived both in much the same way. The letters point the way toward art before Emily wrote a line of passable verse, and the last words she wrote were those of a letter. Now that more than a thousand of her letters are in print it is possible to follow with some accuracy the course of Emily's life in her prose expressions of it, and in the letter-poems she sent to friends. There are still gaps—some as long as a year—but the real Emily Dickinson, far more interesting than the legendary one, has begun to emerge from generations of myth and misconception.


1 Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora V. W. Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), II, 570. References to this edition (hereafter called Letters) will be indicated in the text by volume and page number only, in parentheses.

2 Thomas H. Johnson, ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955), II, 734-35. This edition hereafter will be referred to as Poems.

3 "Packet" does not accurately describe the booklet grouping into which Emily Dickinson gathered hundreds of poems. Each booklet is made up of several sheets of paper, lightly sewn together along the left margin. I use the word "packet" because it is used throughout Poems. Emily Dickinson's word for the booklets is not known; Lavinia Dickinson called them "volumes," Millicent Todd Bingham, "fascicles."

4 In Letters the name is given as Louise; Miss Norcross signed letters thus in her later years. The Dickinsons, however, knew her as Louisa. Letters of Edward Dickinson which speak of "Louisa" are printed in Millicent Todd Bingham's Emily Dickinson's Home (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1955), pp. 464, 469. Mabel Loomis Todd, who discussed Loo with Austin and Lavinia Dickinson, and even with Frances Norcross, used only the name Louisa. See Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1931), pp. 214-15. (This edition will be referred to as Letters [1931].)

5 Bingham, Emily Dickinson's Home, p. 413.

6 Paxton Hibben, Henry Ward Beecher: an American Portrait (New York: The Heritage Press, 1942), pp. 57-58.

7 Millicent Todd Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades: the Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1945), pp. 26-27.

8Ibid., p. 152.

9 George F. Whicher, This Was a Poet: a Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938), p. 147.

10Poems, I, 73.

11Ibid., II, 673. The catalogue of manuscripts in the Millicent Todd Bingham Collection, in the Amherst College Library, lists Bowles as the recipient of this poem.

12Ibid., I, 356-57.

13Ibid., I, 374.

14Ibid., I, 142.

15 Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades, p. 8.

16Macbeth, II, 99.

17 See Whicher, This Was a Poet, p. 232.

18Poems, III, 875.

Principal Works

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Poems by Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1890

Poems by Emily Dickinson, second series (poetry) 1891

Letters of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols, (letters) 1894

Poems by Emily Dickinson, third series (poetry) 1896

The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime (poetry) 1914

Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1929

Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1935

Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1945

The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols, (poetry) 1955

The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols, (letters) 1958

Jane Donahue Eberwein (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "'The Wildest Word': The Habit of Renunciation," in Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985, pp. 21-46.

[In the following essay, Eberwein examines the theme of renunciation in Dickinson's love poems, suggesting the possible correlation between certain life experiences and Dickinson's verse.]

"Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that 'No' is the wildest word we consign to Language?" (L 562). Dickinson posed these questions in an 1878 letter to Judge Otis Phillips Lord at an early stage in her autumnal romance with the widowed Salem jurist, her father's friend and ally in Massachusetts Whig politics. They exemplify a pattern of thinking that had come to characterize her over the years: a habit of renunciation, an excitement in denial, a preference for restrictions. Notions about Emily Dickinson's pitifully deprived life originated in her biography itself; the deprivation was there (mostly of her own choosing) though the pity is misplaced if it presumes her preference for normal domestic routine over an artistically chiseled existence. In a comment to Higginson that accompanied a memoir of George Eliot, the poet clearly recognized the chasm between life as written and life as lived: "Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied—" (L 972). But it is inevitable that her readers take the same sort of personal interest in her that she took in Eliot and the Brownings and natural that we should look to biography for insight into the metaphorical design that governed her writing. The well-circulated myths about Emily Dickinson that originated in Amherst and the relatively prosaic facts of her existence as detailed by scholarly biographers display a pattern of constriction within her life (a tendency to intensify every limiting factor she confronted) and a habit of exploiting those constrictions for artistic growth.

The romantic myths started early and provide the most imaginative examples of this pattern. Best of all, in terms of comprehensiveness, is the story published by Genevieve Taggard in The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (1930); the tale reached Taggard through Mary Lee Hall, who got it from Mrs. Aurelia Hinsdale Davis, who may have picked it up from Lavinia Dickinson in her old age.1 Quite probably, this is a version of the legend Mrs. Todd began to hear when she and her husband reached Amherst in 1881. The story is that Emily Dickinson, recently returned from Mount Holyoke, fell in love with George Gould, who was Austin's fraternity brother and Amherst College classmate. Gould was a prominent member of the class of 1850: an oratorical star and editor of a new literary journal, the Indicator. Their courtship, however, proved ill-fated, running afoul of Edward Dickinson's judgment of the suitor, who, as a ministerial candidate, might never be able to support Edward's daughter adequately. He forbade Gould further access to their home and required that Emily give him up. On the evening of commencement exercises, following the annual reception given by Mr. Dickinson as treasurer of the college, Emily is said to have met Gould on her father's lawn, dressed all in white, to pledge filial obedience and renounce her lover. She is said to have told him "that love was too vital a flower to be crushed so cruelly" and to have signified her stifled will by withdrawing into spinsterish seclusion and wearing nothing but white. This makes a good story in that it offers a complete (if hackneyed) narrative with a touching climax, character conflict, and foreshadowing. But there seems to be no substance to the report.

Certainly Dickinson's 1850 prose valentine to Gould, which he published in the February Indicator, shows little sign of serious commitment—especially in view of the verse valentine she dispatched a few weeks later to her father's law partner, Elbridge Bowdoin (P I). The missive to Gould, a tour de force of sprightly wit that begins "Magnum bonum, 'harum scarum,' zounds et zounds, et war alarum, man reformam, life perfectum, mundum changum, all things flarum?" hardly reads like one of Dickinson's eventual love poems.2

Nor was Gould denied access to Edward Dickinson's home, which he visited occasionally after his graduation before undertaking his ministerial career. Nor did Emily retreat to her father's house for over a decade, nor bleach her dresses. Still, it is a good story in the sentimental vein and most likely quite typical of what her neighbors whispered.

The family's retaliation for such talk about patriarchal cruelty came in another story, promulgated by Mrs. Bianchi to explain how her aunt had reached "the end of peace" during her 1855 visit to her father, then a congressman in Washington.3 While visiting friends in Philadelphia, Dickinson "met the fate she had instinctively shunned" and which she supposedly confided during her lifetime only to "Sister Sue." Bianchi describes the crisis with the most tactful suggestiveness: "Certainly in that first witchery of an undreamed Southern springtime Emily was overtaken—doomed once and forever by her own heart. It was instantaneous, overwhelming, impossible. There is no doubt that two predestined souls were kept apart only by her high sense of duty, and the necessity for preserving love untarnished by the inevitable destruction of another woman's life." The Yankee heroine fled to her home for refuge, only to be pursued there within days by the impassioned lover. Bianchi narrates how Lavinia raced to Susan Gilbert, crying "Sue, come! That man is here!—Father and Mother are away, and I am afraid Emily will go away with him!" But, of course, Emily held fast to duty and another woman's right. Her disappointed lover left his profession and home, withdrawing "to a remote city, a continent's width remote," and died prematurely, "the spell unbroken," while "Emily went on alone in the old house under the pines." This, too, makes a touching sentimental tale, paralleling the Hall story in its theme of love, renunciation, and enduring sorrow. The main distinction, however, is that Dickinson herself emerges as the focal will of this narrative and the source of renunciation. She seems a stronger though sadder figure, in charge of her own tragic destiny.

Again, it proves difficult to confirm this tale by recourse to poems, since Dickinson's 1855 visit to Washington and Philadelphia preceded the love poems by at least three years, generally six or seven. Yet the lyrics themselves seem to preserve moments in a narrative that follows the same curve of passion, renunciation, and elegiac remembrance evident in both the Hall and Bianchi stories. Poems of 1861 and 1862, in particular, offer a compelling if shadowy impression of disappointed love. If one reads them autobiographically (often a misleading approach to Dickinson's work but always tempting), one can discover an intense commitment to one man as the central figure of the poet's universe, a competitor with God for her devotion. She avows that she has elected one "Atom" from among "all the Souls that stand create" as an object of adoration (P 664). Yet the reader finds no promise of beholding this fascinating atom until eternity brings its revelation. Speculation naturally ensues. The lover remains a faceless figure in the poems, with no distinguishing characteristics to help biographers choose from among the names (Wadsworth, Bowles, Lord, or Mr. X) they want to offer as "That portion of the Vision / The Word applied to fill" (P 1126).

This romance, whether real or imaginary, had its passionate moments and climaxed in an encounter such as Hall and Bianchi fantasized. The most famous poem commemorating this communion of loving souls moves from a sense of elated possession through acceptance of parting to a hope of celestial marriage.

There came a Day at Summer's full, Entirely for me— I thought that such were for the Saints, Where Resurrections—be— The Sun, as common, went abroad, The flowers, accustomed, blew, As if no soul the solstice passed That maketh all things new— The time was scarce profaned, by speech— The symbol of a word Was needless, as at Sacrament, The Wardrobe—of our Lord— Each was to each The Sealed Church, Permitted to commune this—time— Lest we too awkward show At Supper of the Lamb. The Hours slid fast—as Hours will, Clutched tight, by greedy hands— So faces on two Decks, look back, Bound to opposing lands— And so when all the time had leaked, Without external sound Each bound the Other's Crucifix— We gave no other Bond— Sufficient troth, that we shall rise— Deposed—at length, the Grave— To that new Marriage, Justified—through Calvaries of Love—(P 322)

The darkening tone of this initially jubilant poem reflects the general pattern of romance within Dickinson's work. The pledge of love and mutual commitment occurs in an hour, creating an anniversary to be recalled through life and a point from which subsequent change is measured.

Such an anniversary sets the occasion for "One Year ago—jots what?" (P 296) in which the speaker recalls the "Glory" of the previous year, whose "Anniversary shall be—/ Sometimes—not often—in Eternity." She says she tasted the "Wine" of this private communion "careless—then—," ignorant that it "Came once a World" and wondering whether the lover—larger and older—had recognized the uniqueness of that day. In the intervening year, however, she feels herself to have grown. He had spoken then of her "Acorn's Breast" and claimed greater capacity for fondness in his "Shaggier Vest" of mature masculinity. But her suffering has developed the acorn and aged the young sweetheart so that she claims to· be "As old as thee" now through experience of pain. This passionate love that cannot be expressed except in a memorable hour turns out to be one of those limitations fostering growth—one of the circumstances that allow the wren to soar, if the lover chooses, to be "Great" or "Small" at his behest (P 738). Clearly the speaker of this and similar poems responds appreciatively to the enhanced self-image bestowed by her lover, by the sense of infinite possibility he conveys to her, even though the greatness arises from pain.

The aftermath of romantic ecstasy is misery and a desperate attempt to recover self-possession without the lover's continued presence to sustain her.

I got so I could hear his name— Without—Tremendous gain— That Stop-sensation—on my Soul— And Thunder—in the Room— I got so I could walk across That Angle in the floor, Where he turned so, and I turned—how— And all our Sinew tore— I got so I could stir the Box— In which his letters grew Without that forcing, in my breath— As Staples—driven through— Could dimly recollect a Grace— I think, they call it "God"— Renowned to ease Extremity— When Formula, had failed— And shape my Hands— Petition's way, Tho' ignorant of a word That Ordination—utters— My Business, with the Cloud, If any Power behind it, be, Not subject to Despair— It care, in some remoter way, For so minute affair As Misery— Itself, too great, for interrupting—more—(P 293)

The tight parallel organization with which this agonized poem begins breaks down in syntactic confusion. The speaker can neither voice a prayer when unsure whether any person or power will hear it nor completely articulate even to herself her own final sentence, in which the subordinate "if" clause dangles helplessly to express her stammering and skeptical wishfulness.

Occasionally Dickinson refers to the nature of this union as a kind of implicit marriage, recognized as binding by the lovers but not to be revealed until heaven (should there turn out to be marriage or giving in marriage above for earth's hopeless lovers). With its humble, reverent expression of gratitude for the hidden gift of the lover's name, "The World—stands—solemner—to me—" (P 493) articulates the complexity of her response. The "Dream" of the lovers' mutual choice proves here "Too beautiful—for Shape to prove—," and Dickinson's longest poem mourns the frustration of one who can live neither with nor without her lover: who can neither die with him nor rise with him for fear "Your Face / Would put out Jesus'—" yet who yearns to be with him for eternity, whether in heaven or hell (P 640). She concludes by describing their apparently fixed earthly situation.

So We must meet apart— You there—I—here— With just the Door ajar That Oceans are—and Prayer— And that White Sustenance— Despair—

In "The face I carry with me—last—" (P 336), the speaker looks for heavenly coronation "As one that bore her Master's name—/ Sufficient Royalty!" On earth, however, this love story ends in renunciation. She writes elsewhere that she must be content with honor foregone "With one long 'Nay'—/ Bliss' early shape / Deforming—Dwindling—Gulphing up—/ Time's possibility" (P 349). This "one long 'Nay'" of inevitable renunciation may be "the wildest word we consign to Language," but it hurts her nonetheless. "Renunciation," she found through this implicit story underlying her romantic poems, "is a piercing Virtue—" (P 745).

If Emily Dickinson's love lyrics assume any narrative shape, this is its design: mutually avowed passionate love climaxed in one or perhaps two brief, intense, profoundly troubled meetings; a commitment amounting to secret marriage; a lifetime's renunciation; a resultant yearning for recognition of this love (perhaps even its consummation) in an afterlife beyond the circumference of this. This narrative clearly reflects a reader's ordering of the lyrics, chiefly those Johnson dates to 1861 and 1862, and presumes that the poems express their author directly rather than one of the imagined persons discernible in many other poems. Quite probably no such specific sequence occurred in Dickinson's own life; yet it is fair to say that this pattern of avowal, renunciation, and expectancy existed within her imagination and shaped her perception of such courtship as required "No" to be "the wildest word." Her readers and biographers have displayed remarkable ingenuity in their efforts to name the lover whom the poet identified only as "Master" and "Sir," making the strongest arguments for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth,4 Samuel Bowles,5 and Otis Lord.6 The biographical narratives her readers have constructed to account for her relationships with Wadsworth and Bowles (both of them married) follow the design articulated above, with passion leading to inevitable renunciation. The eventual courtship with her father's widowed friend (better documented than the others though far too late in life to account for the love poems discussed above) traced a somewhat different curve toward a similar result.

As Mary Lee Hall cautioned Mrs. Todd, however, "The poems cannot be interpreted solely by Emily's love affairs, the shadows drove her into herself. She found much elation in the men who came into her horizon, and they seemed to be the matches that ignited her mental oil tanks."7 The oil was already there, ready to explode. Neither Lavinia nor Austin believed there had been any one great love of their sister's life. As Lavinia put it, Emily "was always watching for the rewarding person to come,"8 and the reward she derived from her friendships was largely an artistic one. She relished friendships while they stayed strong (sometimes defeating them herself by the sheer force of her possessive passion, as seems to have happened with school friends) but discovered early the fragility of love. In January of 1855, she wrote first to Susan Gilbert (then engaged to Austin) and later to her cousin, John L. Graves, essentially the same statement of habitual renunciation: "If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in" (L 177; 186). Certainly, she held onto the box of outgrown love and relied on its contents, hidden in her drawer, as a precious emotional investment (P 887). Recognizing limitation even to the force of love, Dickinson intensified that limitation by restricting her affection to fewer and fewer people and renouncing all but epistolary involvement even with most of the chosen. Still, the phantoms in her box and the lost loves in her drawer took on new life in poems that bespeak a depth of passion she probably never experienced directly and derive a startlingly universal insight into human emotions from drastically limited resources.

This tendency to devote herself to unreachable men whom she idealized and to court romantic disaster, if only unconsciously, for the sake of renunciation and its fruits naturally militated against the romantic and even marital attachments Dickinson could have formed in a college town with its annual influx of bachelors and in a family headed by lawyers who introduced her to young men of their profession. Although most of Dickinson's friends married, she cultivated instead a habit of exclusion in emotionally vulnerable relationships. From textual evidence, it would be hard to prove that she ever wished marriage, as distinct from love and the sense of being chosen. Her few fantasies of this sort appear in "Forever at His side to walk—" (P 246) and "Although I put away his life—" (P 366), the latter spoken from the perspective of a woman who has already renounced the lover but fantasizes the comforts she might have brought him: gardening for him, nursing him, clearing "the pebble from his path," playing for him on her lute, doing his errands, eagerly performing his "weariest Commandment," and carrying sticks to light the fire in his cottage. Inspected closely, this love-in-a-cottage picture seems to scream slavery! Why would Emily Dickinson have chosen marriage, anyway? For loving companionship of the sort she could depend upon at home? For the economic support and community status that her father provided, even posthumously? For motherhood, one of the few female roles she never played in her poetic fantasies?9 For romantic love, which seems never ad equately to have been offered her—her standards being high and Robert Browning unique? For social engagements, when she increasingly craved solitude? Her brother's unhappy marriage and the troubles she sensed in other families (including Mary Bowles's jealous dependence on her husband) demonstrated the fragility of marital peace even among persons she idealized. To imagine that Emily Dickinson would ever have chosen the public responsibilities and private obligations of a minister's, lawyer's, or editor's wife in small-town New England is to capitulate entirely to the conventions of sentimental domestic fiction.

Directly or indirectly, Dickinson chose spinsterhood, which her neighbors regarded as a slightly unnatural condition unless the unclaimed jewel attracted sympathy with a sad story of disappointed love, like the Gould and Wadsworth legends the town fabricated on her behalf. The spinster's role in society was one of charitable service, an option that irritated the poet, prompting this youthful explosion to Jane Humphrey: "work makes one strong, and cheerful—and as for society what neighborhood so full as my own? The halt—the lame—and the blind—the old—the infirm—the bed-ridden—and superannuated—the ugly, and disagreeable—the perfectly hateful to me—all these to see—and be seen by—an opportunity rare for cultivating meekness—and patience—and submission—and for turning my back to this very sinful, and wicked world. Somehow or other I incline to other things—and Satan covers them up with flowers, and I reach out to pick them" (L 30). In her maturity, the flowers Satan scattered were few; she seemed to renounce temptation with other things. And her letters show her as a kindly, comforting neighbor—so long as she neither had to see the objects of her charity nor, still worse, be seen by them. Her solution, characteristically, was to choose the most constricted option available to a woman of her class—turning her back more fully to the sinful and wicked world than the teachers she mimicked in this letter ever imagined and settling for the inviolate privacy of an aristocratic New England recluse, responsible only to herself and God.

Not even to her family did she ever fully communicate her vocation as a poet or the achievement represented by the drawerful of manuscript that Lavinia discovered on her death. Yet hiding her light beneath the proverbial bushel barrel, Dickinson made sure the smoldering flame would eventually ignite its container. She used her apparently unproductive seclusion for astonishing artistic ends and drew lifelong artistic benefits from the isolation that afforded her privacy for artistic craftsmanship while shielding her hypersensitive emotional nature from sensory overload.

As the Gould and Wadsworth legends demonstrate, Dickinson's neighbors instinctively attributed the young woman's withdrawal to her supposedly broken heart rather than to her judgment "of the hollowness & awfulness of the world," which Austin noticed forming as early as 1851 when his sisters visited him in Boston.10 By 1863, Samuel Bowles was referring to his friend as "the Queen Recluse," inquiring with amusement in a letter to Austin about the musical entertainments his sister enjoyed in heaven and expressing sympathy for her achievement in overcoming the world." She replied with a squib, "I could'nt let Austin's note go—without a word—,"12 and a poem reminding him that experiences are discovered by their opposites: fire from ice, red from white, paralysis from vitality, and (presumably) society from solitude and the universe from her chamber (P 689).

Dickinson probably liked Bowles's queen image—one of a constellation of royal terms she tended to employ in interchanges with him. Often she combined it with shrinking, humble metaphors that also reflected aspects of her expanding and contracting self-image. One poem, "A Mien to move a Queen" (P 283), alternates her characteristic images of limitation (references to the wren, a tear, tiny hands, and a soft voice) with those of empowerment (queen, duke, realm, diadem). The strength comes from chosen patterns of behavior, such as adopting a haughty mien or speaking in a commanding voice. The smallness prevents men from fearing this aristocratic mite, and distance, while cutting short opportunities for affection, precludes contempt. "And so Men Compromise—/ And just—revere—." They honor what they might otherwise disdain because distance makes the regal performance more convincing.

The regal aspect of Dickinson's withdrawal came from her habit of exclusion. "The Soul," she said in one of her most famous poems, "selects her own Society—/ Then—shuts the Door—" (P 303). Lavinia tried to defend her sister from charges of snobbishness by arguing that "she was not withdrawn or exclusive really. She was always watching for the rewarding person to come, but she was a very busy person herself. She had to think—she was the only one of us who had that to do."13 Evidently, Dickinson found most persons unrewarding and easily expelled them from her self-selected society. Her comments to Higginson on the persons without thoughts whom she noticed parading by her window demonstrate that she would look for no help in her thinking from most of her neighbors (L 342a).

There can be no question that her isolation intensified neurotic tendencies in Emily Dickinson and allowed for the flowering of eccentric behavior that contributed nothing to her happiness or anyone else's. Yet the Reverend E. Winchester Donald, Austin's friend and a frequent summer visitor to Amherst, was one of the first to recognize the benefit she may have drawn as an artist from the penalties she paid as a woman when he asked Mrs. Todd on receipt of the 1890 Poems, "One other thing: was the inexorable cost of all this illumination her seclusion renunciation & ache? Would John Baptist be forerunner without the years in the desert, the locusts and all that? Is the nun's self-effacement, her veil and her virginity, the explanation of her unquestioned power? We cannot wear lace and pearls—go often to town & the play, be experts in salads beers and truffles, know what to do with our hands—and expect either to see heaven or to have anyone believe we have seen it."14 So much for Bowles's taunting questions to his "Queen Recluse": "Is it really true that they ring 'Old Hundred' & 'Aleluia' perpetually, in heaven—ask her; and are dandelions, asphodels, & Maiden's [vows?] the standard flowers of the ethereal?"15 Yet even in her fantasies of celestial bliss, Dickinson retained her habit of limitation in writing: "I went to Heaven / 'Twas a small Town—" where she could be "Almost—/ contented—" (P 374).

Emily Dickinson's reclusive situation resulted from her own choice. Even if her father had wanted to keep his daughters home (an assertion apparently based on Lavinia's late-life tales but not otherwise substantiated), he never confined Emily to the house and, in fact, counteracted her tendencies toward seclusion by sending her away to school, inviting her to Washington, contriving opportunities for her to go to Boston, and finally requiring her to participate in his commencement receptions. It was her own choice not to "cross my Father's ground to any House or town" (L 330). And there were odd behavior choices she made within his house that carried to an eccentric extreme her habit of limitation. It must be borne in mind that these quirks developed only gradually and that the legendary spinster of the 1880s is a later and somewhat distorted development of the poet of the 1860s. When she wrote most of her poems in that brilliantly productive Civil War period, Dickinson was still making periodic medical jaunts to Cambridge, still visiting at her brother's house, and still receiving visitors even though the very pressure of composing and recording so much poetry (apparently about a poem a day in 1862) must itself have restricted her social involvement. Nor is there any evidence that withdrawal or any other eccentricity proved a recoil from disappointed love. It seems more probable that the romantic renunciations emerged from the same deep-seated need to explore and exploit limitations as did the domestic behavior patterns. So did the poetry.

Perhaps the strangest of her eccentricities was her secretive artistic life. Granted, family members, friends, and neighbors all knew that Emily Dickinson wrote, but apparently none of them suspected either the quantity or quality of her poems; and her habit of attaching bits of verse to letters or gifts actually helped to promote the notion of her versifying as a decorative feminine accomplishment. So, perhaps, did her refusal to let Helen Hunt Jackson (another Amherst native, by then a nationally famous author) publish any of her poems despite the other's decisive moral argument that "You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy" (L 444a).

Other behavior patterns seem decidedly eccentric. Innate shyness, for example, which always made her ill at ease with crowds or strangers, developed with time into almost total seclusion except for her dizzyingly extensive correspondence. Clearly, Dickinson took an intense interest in people she cared about, and her heart ranged widely—happily opening itself to friends of friends and survivors of acquaintances. Yet she refused almost all visitors, including some she had directly invited to call upon her. To soften the blow of her refusals, she developed charming habits like that of sending to a friend kept waiting in the garden a servant with a silver tray bearing a flower or glass of wine and a cryptic note or verse.16 She gave herself the benefit of visitation without exposing herself to discovery by having a family friend like Mrs. Todd play the piano and sing for her while she enjoyed the performance from a distant part of the house, signifying her pleasure by faint applause and little gifts.17 The exclusion was selective, however. She was more open to persons she regarded as unthreatening: children, servants, an Indian squaw selling baskets. Her brother's children and their little friends enjoyed her secretive play with them—the mysteries she contrived and surprises she planned.18 Even these involvements could be strangely distant, as when she lowered baskets of gingerbread from her bedroom window to her nephew's friends below. Dickinson even planned the details of her own funeral in a way that excluded the town, leaving orders that her body (enclosed in a white casket) be carried by family servants out the backdoor, across the garden, through the barn, and over the fields to the grave—wholly evading the usual public procession along Amherst streets.19

The white casket, like the white dress in which Dickinson chose to be buried, calls to mind that other idiosyncrasy her neighbors attributed to romantic disaster: her habit of dressing in white. Just when this pattern developed is hard to tell. Sewall traces the tendency to the mid-1860s but doubts that the habit became fixed before her father's death in 1874.20 When Higginson met the poet in 1870, he found her costumed in a white dress and blue shawl (L 342a). Interpretations of her action vary almost as dramatically as the symbolism spun from Moby Dick's pallor. White is the bride's color, hence Dickinson's choice to signify the mystic marriage with her lover to be revealed in heaven. And it is the color of the shroud and of ghosts, representative of death. It can be found in gothic novels as well as Revelation. This "colorless all-color" of Ishmael's meditation leads Dickinson's critics, like Melville's, to the heart of ambiguity.21

If we turn to "Mine—by the Right of the White Election!" (P 528) to resolve this puzzle, we can recognize the tone of triumphant entitlement ringing through one of Dickinson's most joyful lyrics, but we are at a loss to identify the occasion that evoked it, whether mystical marriage, spiritual election, or discovery of herself as a great poet. Some of the poems she grouped with it in fascicle 20 suggest her association of whiteness with frigidity or death. Her juxtaposition of "I think the Hemlock likes to stand" (P 525) with "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" (P 365) offers a sharp contrast. The hemlock—black, massive, nobly drooping tree that she identifies with northern climates and races (such as her own)—finds the complement of its dark power in the snow because, she says, it satisfies "An instinct for the Hoar, the Bald." In some moods, anyway, Dickinson too shared this craving that satisfied her awe with its austerity; and she may have complemented the blackness of her tragic moods with Lapland's chill pallor Yet "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" immediately counters the iciness of snow with the contradictory colorless light of "unannointed Blaze"—far more searing than the red flame of ordinary passion. The soul, which has "vanquished Flame's conditions," threatens destruction to the body ("Forge") that still tries to contain it. "Some say the world will end in fire," wrote Robert Frost, "some say in ice"; Dickinson could signify either one by her ambiguous whiteness, which could include the desire and hatred of his quatrain as well as her "White Sustenance—/Despair—" (P 640).22

Another poem, "A solemn thing—it was—I said —" (P 271), links the white costume more directly to the themes of smallness and renunciation that characterized her personal mythology of growth. Here Dickinson directly associates the choice of white costume with a God-given vocation that involved dropping her life into the mystic (or "purple") well of disappearance· from the world until new revelation in eternity. She meditates the "bliss", that might accompany such apparently total self-abnegation and proudly recognizes the growth, the disproval of smallness, the push toward circumference, that would be the paradoxical reward of elected self-denial. That Mrs. Todd entitled the poem "Wedded" in the 1896 Poems demonstrates the possibility of reading it as a marriage poem and using it as evidence to support the bridal theory of Dickinson's white costume. The imagery makes more sense, however, in terms of the poet's distinctive metaphor of growth through pressing upon limits—especially when she concludes "And I sneered—softly—'small'!"

In the poem immediately following, the speaker makes no reference to clothes but may already be vested in a shroud. She has died but retained the appearance of breathing so that touch rather than vision confirms the numb coolness of the corpse (P 272). Associations between whiteness and both death and emotional extremes emerge more strongly in this sequence than the bridal motif and sustain the impression that the poet's distinctive costume represented the loss of one kind of life and the assumption of a new one. The "mute Pomp" and "pleading Pageantry—" (P 582) of this private symbol suggest that the glorious entitlement of her "White Election" came at considerable cost, involving renunciation and vicarious experience of that incommunicable "White Exploit" (P 922) of dying.

This lexicon-loving writer occasionally characterized profound change in other people's lives with the word translation, which offers further insight into the kind of change her costume signified. In 1852 she reported to Austin on Dream Life by Ik Marvel, pleasant reading but inferior to the sketches that had earlier enchanted her, with the comment, "I cant help wishing all the time, that he had been translated like Enoch of old, after his Bachelors Reverie, and the 'chariot of fire, and the horses thereof,' were all that was seen of him, after that exquisite writing" (L 75). A little over a year later, she reflected to Emily Fowler on her impressions of this friend's marriage to Gordon Lester Ford: "when it came, and hidden by your veil you stood before us all and made those promises, and when we kissed you, all, and went back to our homes, it seemed to me translation, not any earthly thing, and if a little after you'd ridden on the wind, it would not have surprised me" (L 146). Both Mrs. Ford and Mr. Marvel, of course, remained disappointingly earthbound—neither of them was "translated" or carried across the circumference between this life and a better by the power of either love or artistic creation. But a decade later Dickinson may herself have felt afloat on the wind by virtue of her own poetry (more soaring art than Marvel's essays) and may have considered herself to have transcended her original identity and attained a kind of heaven by God's lifting her in imagination over the barrier of death without her directly experiencing it.23 In a poem of 1862, at any rate, she used this distinctive word to claim a supernaturally exhilarating aesthetic experience such as the saints might enjoy: "Better—than Music! For I—who heard it—/ I was used—to the Birds—be-fore—/ This—was different—'Twas Translation—/ of all tunes I knew—and more—" (P 503). This sound carried the poet retrospectively to legends of "a better—/ Melody—" in Eden and projected her, humming in "faint Rehearsal," toward the celestial singers "around the Throne—." Only religion provided imagery adequate to the experience.

Translation was a biblical concept, as Dickinson's epistolary examples demonstrate with their easy mingling of scriptural texts that fuse the stories of Enoch and Elijah, each drawn miraculously to heaven without experiencing death. The word translation itself would have been familiar to the poet from Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, where she read: "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God" (Hebrews 11:5). In this passage Paul worked out the theology of translation, identifying this experience as one initiated by God and accomplished through the power of faith as a reward to the prophet for pleasing God. But the colorful aspects of Dickinson's version come not from Hebrews or even from the comparatively flat narrative of Enoch's translation in Genesis (5:24).24 They came from the story in 2 Kings of Elijah's comparable translation: "And it came to pass, as they [Elijah and Elisha] still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2 Kings 2:11). This was a story that fascinated Dickinson and that she celebrated in several poems, most notably "Elijah's Wagon knew no thill" (P 1254). God alone could portray the details of this miraculous journey, but its destination was clearly heaven—reached by dramatic ascension rather than through the routine tunneling of the grave.

Without dying, Elijah rose—to be seen again at Christ's Transfiguration, when he and Moses appeared to the Apostles as walking and talking with Jesus, who was himself dazzling like a translated saint: "his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light" (Matthew 17:2-3). The Transfiguration itself anticipated the most wonderful example of translation, Christ's rising from the dead and ascension into heaven; and the behavior of the risen Christ exemplified the qualities of the person so favored by God. Like Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus, the translated saint would disappear from the ordinary world, leaving worshipers in wonder. He or she would resemble the risen Christ—visible to close friends, fleshless but powerful, already living in the glory that Christian iconography traditionally represents by shining garments. This, I believe, is the state Emily Dickinson signified by her white clothing. As her epistolary examples of Marvel and Mrs. Ford indicate, it was a state she thought possible for persons of her time, though a rare reward for pleasing God—an exceptional heightening of election. It was a particularly appropriate glory for her, whose poetry probed the awesome circumference of death and tried to penetrate its barrier by imaginative strategies if not by faith. Like Jesus, she dressed in white; like Elijah, she saw herself as the center of a superb adventure; like Enoch, she was not found by those who looked for her.

Yet again, renunciation for Dickinson proved the secret of power and withdrawal from the world—virtual denial of her continuing identity—became the symbol that she had penetrated (at least through imagination) the circumference of ordinary human limitation. If her neighbors chose to think of her as a Miss Havisham rather than an Enoch, she left them to their speculation—discovering that her austere wardrobe and reticent habits evoked pity, which she never wanted, while securing a privacy that liberated her for the artistic work to which she felt called.25 Her eccentric habits even provided an untroublesome sort of notoriety, it a child, Emily was quoted as saying, "I have a horror of death; the dead are so soon forgotten. But when I die, they'll have to remember me."26 By dying to Amherst for at least the last decade of her life, she cultivated a reputation for exclusion that left people eager for any glimpse into her private mystery and provided herself with an initial audience for the poems that justified her translation.

Reinforcing these rather stylized renunciations that Emily Dickinson herself directly chose to build her metaphorical life action, there were other, less picturesque, limitations that also circumscribed her opportunities. Some derived from her small-town Connecticut Valley environment, some from the Victorian era, some from her femaleness. Yet the consistent pattern that emerges from comparing Dickinson's personal experience with those culturally imposed limitations is one of supplemental personal choice. Her background almost never exemplified these limiting factors to an extreme degree; indeed, she had noticeable advantages over many women of her culture even though sexual and social constraints were always present. What happened, however, is that Dickinson herself tightened the screws on each restriction. By her own choices, she immured herself within the magic prison that paradoxically liberated her art.

The first limitation, one that Dickinson shared with most American contemporaries, was that of small-town provincialism. Amherst's population was small and, except for Irish and black workers, heterogeneously Yankee. Its citizens all knew each other and each other's business. Although Jay Leyda has chronicled how Amherst acquainted even its most retiring daughter with the dread realities of "the violent deaths, suicides, lynch mobs, abortions, dishonesties that are the normal portion of village life," even The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson shows the town to have been a quiet place on the whole and respectable in the Victorian manner.27 Always more concerned with beauty than morality, Dickinson seems to have taken less interest than many others in her neighbors' sins but must still have felt the lack of cultural resources in a town that, like most others across the United States, offered its citizens few opportunities to appreciate artistic excellence. Yet Amherst was not a backwater. It had a college, literary societies, and a lecture series. The combination of cultural appetite with artistic privation forced this community toward language for expression and enjoyment. Lecturers could be hired and books sent for. For Dickinson in Amherst, as for Hawthorne in Salem and Thoreau in Concord, literature was the only art form familiar enough to be understood, imitated, and eventually created.

That Dickinson turned inward toward books and eventually substituted written correspondence for almost every other kind of communication was, then, only her intensification of a general cultural pattern. If books opened to her a world more exciting than Amherst, she was prepared to renounce the town. Luckily, when she withdrew from lectures, concerts, and tableaux, she had adequate literary resources to make up the loss: a steady supply of reading matter, including popular novels and magazines; correspondents who appreciated her allusive habits; and the good taste to winnow ordinary writing from great literature. She told Higginson that "After long disuse of her eyes she read Shakespeare & thought why is any other book needed" (L 342b). When her preceptor invited her to join his Boston salon of artistic ladies, she chose to stay in Amherst.

Throughout the Connecticut Valley, in South Hadley even more insistently than in Amherst, Dickinson encountered yet another reminder of her finitude in the omnipresent atmosphere of Calvinist piety. But even in religion she was spared the extremes of evangelical fire-and-brimstone terror on the one hand and broad-minded intellectual vapidity on the other. At home, in church, and at school, young Emily confronted the awesome contrast between human weakness and divine omnipotence; she knew her radical insufficiency—her presumably depraved natural condition. She felt great pressure from those who loved her to accept Jesus as her savior, although she knew she must wait for conversion and cipher at its signs. Dickinson's friends Abiah Root and Abby Wood found themselves converted in adolescence, as did Lavinia, who—with Edward Dickinson—formally joined the church during the revival of 1850. Austin joined just before his marriage, leaving Emily the sole outsider within the family. At least in adolescence, her letters showed a somewhat envious awareness of the peace these Christians claimed to enjoy (L 10; 39), but she never formally recognized herself as converted and referred to herself in later years as "but a Pagan—" (L 976).

When Edward Dickinson summoned his minister to examine his daughter spiritually, Mr. Jenkins declared her "sound," but the religion she substituted for her family's Congregationalism imposed radical limitations on normal religious practice.28 Susan Dickinson's obituary for her independent sister-in-law established a parallel between her literary and spiritual selectivity. Just as "she sifted libraries to Shakespeare and Browning," she stripped devotion of all excess: "To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm step of martyrs who sing while they suffer."29 Keeping her Sabbath by staying home in her garden, professing disregard for doctrine, refusing to judge behavior in moralistic terms, she responded with her "wildest word" to most of what her neighbors valued as religion.

Nonetheless, it is futile to treat Dickinson as other than a religious poet. She divorced herself from the visible signs of religion in her community to distill its essence, focusing intense spiritual passion on the intimate encounter between herself and God—an interchange in which she hoped to smash circumference and snatch the prize of immortality. The encounter was not always a loving one—often painful and terrible—but it was the central action of her life, to which she applied all the resources she had learned for exploiting her finitude. "God was penurious with me," she asserted, "which makes me shrewd with Him" (L 207). The strategies she developed were poetic ones to bridge the chasm between the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the immortal—a process that is simultaneously the essence of religion and the definition of her quest.

A third overwhelming cultural limitation on Dickinson's growth was the sexual stereotyping of the Victorian era that accorded a decorative and subordinate role to her presumably fragile sex and especially to its genteel representatives within her social class. Physiology joined with social convention to confine women within the home.30 Discrimination took its intellectual toll as well as an emotional one. Partly as a consequence of adolescent illness and even more because of restrictive notions about feminine needs, most girls of Emily Dickinson's generation were educated less rigorously than their brothers. Even people who thought girls might have adequate intelligence for formal education worried about the physical strain of schooling and questioned the usefulness of a masculine curriculum for young ladies. (Higginson himself, champion of Radcliffe College, failed to complete his daughter's education.) Few girls attended school beyond the primary grades, undertook higher education, or studied the classical languages and mathematics that would equip them for the learned professions they were unwelcome to enter in any event. Domestic skills, the social graces, religious principles, and superficial artistic accomplishments prepared a lady to ornament her husband's home. "How invaluable to be ignorant," Dickinson responded, "for by that means one has all in reserve and it is such an Economical Ecstasy."31

Yet she was hardly ignorant, being provided with an education far superior to the norm. At Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke she studied science, philosophy, Euclid, and Latin—much the same curriculum Austin faced—and endured similar rigors of public examinations. Under the governance of Mary Lyon, the female seminary set high academic standards in order to prepare its graduates for lives of competence and service—preferably in the missions. But Dickinson spent only one year at South Hadley, and even that period (like her previous Academy experiences) was interrupted by parentally mandated intervals at home for rest and domestic training. The contrast between Austin's Amherst College and Harvard Law privileges with his role as paternal delegate in snatching his tearful sister home from Mount Holyoke is a painful one, illustrative of that greater respect for his only son's mind that Mr. Dickinson increasingly displayed (L 23).32 Still, the elder daughter pursued her education independently. First with Benjamin Newton as tutor, then with Higginson as preceptor, she concentrated her extraordinary intellectual and volitional force on her poetic growth.

Both at school and at home, a young woman of Dickinson's class could exercise her mind in comparative safety by reading imaginative literature, and Dickinson's letters reveal the eagerness with which she seized upon fiction and poetry to counteract educational deprivation. She seems to have read almost anything recommended by her like-minded friends: Shakespeare, of course, and Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Brontës, and the Brownings—but also Longfellow, Ik Marvel, and a host of popular writers.33 It was the current sentimentalism that dominated her early letters, probably because society approved such reading for young ladies—if indulged in moderately so as not to round the shoulders or erode good sense. The popular fiction reinforced values to which the society conditioned its girls.34 It accorded kind attention to women, both as characters and authors, even as it narrowed their aspirations.

By fixing attention on domestic life and locating heroism in meek acceptance of suffering, sentimental literature exalted women in their capacities as dutiful daughters, sacrificing mothers, and model Christians. It presented life as sadly beautiful without examining the economic or political bases for the sorrow—preferring to justify all crises as moral tests…. some of the stock situations of this literature are discoverable even in her poetry, as are the compassionate, benevolent feelings that sentimental literature evokes. Yet lyric poetry distills images and feelings at the expense of narrative, and the only way to impose outright sentimental fictions on her work is to spin a narrative that binds the lyrics somewhat arbitrarily, as I have done in reorganizing her love poems to suggest a story—a distinctly sentimental tale like most of those that readers generate in the hope of restoring plot, character, and situation to these imaginatively compelling lyrics. Dickinson exploited even the conventions of sentimental literature to create her poems and call forth her audience.

Sentimental writing, which implicitly honored the restrictions of genteel Christian womanhood, promoted the reputations of writers as diverse as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Sigourney, Lucy Larcom, and Frances Osgood.35 Women demonstrated in Dickinson's day that they could turn a profit out of their ostensibly timid calls upon public attention, and they established their own magazines to publish the edifying fiction for which the public appetite appeared insatiable. But Dickinson—always an elitist—refused to superimpose ordinary, culturally acceptable meanings on the amazing sense of her poetry, and she never availed herself of the feminine literary marketplace to which both male and female literati willingly consigned all the sweet singers with whom they would have classified her.

Denial of publication to this astonishingly gifted poet is the limitation within her life that rankles most sharply today. Dickinson, who described her verse as "my letter to the World" (P 441), must have wished an audience. The few poems that reached print anonymously and in corrupted texts reveal an initial willingness to publish, although her reaction against editorial blunders shows an aversion to compromise not possible for more professional-minded poets (L 316). Perhaps she hoped for a while that Bowles, Holland, and Higginson would help her to publish in well-read, respectable journals. When they failed her, she characteristically refrained from offering her verses to the plethora of literary magazines that might have printed some. It was hardly impossible for women poets to publish in nineteenth-century America (though difficult to make a living), but those who succeeded often did so, like their male counterparts, by pandering to conventional tastes and commercial pressures. Too proud to join Hawthorne's "d——d mob of scribbling women," Dickinson stitched her own little "volumes" (Lavinia's word) and tucked them in drawers to await their resurrection.

In "Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—" (P 709), Dickinson expressed her contempt for commercial composition. To read this poem only as an ironic attempt at disguising authorial pain is to miss the genteel Yankee pride that spits out the key word, "Auction." Recall Thoreau's sneers at auctions in Walden, the associations he draws between bodily death and material accumulation; and remember Frost's New England reversal of consumerist values: "The having anything to sell is what / Is the disgrace in man or state or nation." Edward Taylor had suspected that his Connecticut Valley neighbors would reject salvation itself if allowed to haggle over its cost.36 Dickinson, a lady comfortably provided for, had nothing to sell in the garage sale of imagination. She substituted the concept of stewardship for that of property in the statement "Thought belong to Him who gave it—/ Then—to Him Who bear / It's Corporeal illustration—" and refused to reduce her proud spirit "To Disgrace of Price—." If her talent belonged to God, he would somehow get the value of it and she perhaps the fame. References to whiteness here link her translated self to her Creator, by whom her "Snow," artistically fashioned, would be validly appraised.

It is amusing that Emily Dickinson's very reserve about publication, coupled with her incremental release of sample verses in multitudinous messages of friendship or consolation, eventually resulted in a local reputation for literary performance. The Springfield Daily Republican (which itself had printed several of her poems anonymously), the Record, and the Union all fostered conjecture that an Amherst lady named Dickinson was the author of Helen Hunt Jackson's unacknowledged Saxe Holm stories. As early as 1878, then, Dickinson could have read ascriptions of her authorship in the newspaper with reviewers finding the same characteristics in another woman's prose that their successors would find in her poetry come 1890.37 Dickinson made no money from her writing and probably never wanted to. She seldom saw her name in print (never with a poem) and most likely gave thanks for the privacy. She did, nevertheless, find a few appreciative readers. Her correspondence with Susan Gilbert Dickinson on "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—" (P 216) reveals a more sensitive editor next door than in the offices of the Springfield Daily Republican or Atlantic Monthly (L 238). The eventual editing history of Dickinson's poems, especially the contributions of Mabel Loomis Todd, demonstrates that the poet had access to responsive, critical readers—most of them women. The enthusiasm for literature of all sorts among middle-class American ladies resulted in the emergence of a reading audience capable of artistic discrimination beyond the level the commercial marketplace assumed, capable of welcoming Emily Dickinson's poems as soon as they appeared.38 Not only Dickinson, then, but others as well managed to transcend the stultifying limits of Victorian feminine culture, although her admirers quickly capitulated to that culture by fashioning a sentimental myth around "Emily" herself.

Genteel nineteenth-century American society limited women in their power to make significant choices, encouraging men to think of active decisions and women of passive ones. A woman should wait for a man to choose her in marriage, should learn to subordinate her will to her father's or husband's. She should look for signs of God's approval. Yet to emphasize such constraints on female choices is to exaggerate the problem. Women did have important areas of freedom, particularly with regard to religion.39 Within the home, also, a woman could exercise a great many choices about furniture, clothing, and medical treatment. Although some women used their privileges to acquire fashionable property, defining themselves by possessions, the Yankee women of Dickinson's time were more likely to use freedom in making negative choices. They demonstrated thrift and prudence by showing what they could do without; taste defined itself by discriminations. Mocking this tendency in her youth, Dickinson amused herself in several letters with references to a neighbor's potentially fatal fastidiousness: "Mrs. Skeeter' is very feeble, 'cant bear Allopathic treatment, cant have Homeopathic'—dont want Hydropathic—Oh what a pickle she is in—should'nt think she would deign to live—it is so decidedly vulgar!" (L 82). Yet this woman, who would eventually require her own doctor to diagnose her from a distance as she paced back and forth in an adjoining room, lived to carry to extremes this habit of selecting, discriminating, excluding.40

In subject matter, Dickinson's poems stress both sides of a woman's situation. She could express delight at being chosen—the passive beneficiary of a more powerful being's option, but she also communicated the painful power of making exclusions. At her most ebullient, describing herself as self-sufficient, self-defined, she claimed the right even to positive choice: characteristically a grand one. "With Will to choose, or to reject," she chose, "just a Crown—" (P 508). Yet even this coronation came by a process of negative choices, rejection of the name and roles her family had assigned her.

I'm ceded—I've stopped being Their's— The Name They dropped upon my face With water, in the country church Is finished using, now, And They can put it with my Dolls, My childhood, and the string of spools, I've finished threading—too—

She asserted her right to do without most of the satisfactions she had been taught she needed.

In her life, as in her poems, Dickinson exploited the opportunity to make negative choices, recognizing that her tendency to deny opportunities marked her off as eccentric and exclusive while exposing her to pain. "Odd, that I, who say 'no' so much, cannot bear it from others," she wrote to Louise Norcross, "Odd, that I, who run from so many, cannot brook that one turn from me" (L 245). Wanting to be chosen by important others, she habitually abstained from positive choices herself: "With one long 'Nay'—/ Bliss' early shape / Deforming—Dwindling—/ Gulphing up—/ Time's possibility" (P 349). Emily Dickinson shaped her life, by a startlingly consistent pattern of negative choices, in a way that intensified every limitation upon her, exaggerated every barrier. And she did so consciously, not in order to punish herself or court discomfort, but to promote reflexive inward growth. If "No" was "the wildest word we consign to Language," it could somehow liberate other words—including those she would select to formulate the literature of limitation and rejection that initiated her metaphysical quest for circumference.


1 Leyda, Years and Hours, 1:177-178. Sewall also presents this story, with reasons for doubting it, in The Life, II:419-422. A variant appears in Leyda, Years and Hours, II:478-479.

2 Leyda, Years and Hours, I:168.

3 Bianchi, Life and Letters, pp. 43-51; Emily Dickinson Face to Face, pp. 51-53.

4 Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1955), pp. 76-84; George Frisbie Whicher, This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (1938; reprint ed., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957), pp. 99-112. See also Sewall, The Life, II: chap. 20; William R. Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1968), chap. 3; William H. Shurr, The Marriage of Emily Dickinson: A Study of the Fascicles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983); and John Crowe Ransom, "Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored," Perspectives USA (1956), reprinted in Sewall, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection, p. 98.

5 Ruth Miller, The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (Middle-town, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), esp. chaps. 5-7; David Higgins, Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967), chap. 4; and Sewall, The Life, II: chaps. 21-22.

6 Millicent Todd Bingham, Emily Dickinson: A Revelation (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954). For reservations about the authenticity of documents published by Bingham, consult Anna Mary Wells, "ED Forgeries," Dickinson Studies 35 (1979): 12-16. Further attention to this relationship may be found in John Evangelist Walsh, The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971).

7 Sewall, The Life, I:255.

8 Bingham, Emily Dickinson's Home, p. 413.

9 An early letter to Abiah Root makes sportive reference to maternity: "Twin loaves of bread have just been born into the world under my auspices—fine children—the image of their mother—and here my dear friend is the glory" (L 36).

10 Leyda, Years and Hours, I:213.

11 Ibid., II:76.

12 Ibid., 77.

13 Bingham, Emily Dickinson's Home. pp. 413-414.

14 Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades, p. 77.

15 Leyda, Years and Hours, II:76.

16 Accounts of such experiences appear in memoirs by MacGregor Jenkins, Gertrude Montague Graves, and an unidentified Amherst correspondent quoted in Leyda, Years and Hours, II:482-484.

17 Ibid., 357. See also Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades, p. 12, and Bianchi, Emily Dickinson Face to Face, pp. 34-35.

18 Bianchi, Emily Dickinson Face to Face, chap. I, and MacGregor Jenkins, Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1930).

19 Leyda, Years and Hours, II:474-476; Sewall, The Life, II:610.

20 Sewall, The Life, II:448.

21 Consider, for example, Austin Warren, "Emily Dickinson," in Sewall, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection, pp. 113-115; Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance, p. 152; and Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, pp. 613-621 .

22 "Fire and Ice," in The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 220.

23 Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, Mass.: George and Charles Merriam, 1849) encouraged this use of the word translation by offering as the third of five meanings "the removal of a person to heaven without subjecting him to death" and by citing Hebrews 16 as an example of the verb translate: "By faith Enoch was translated, that he should not see death."

24 Genesis 5:24: "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." Dickinson focused attention on this text in poem 1342, thought by Johnson to be an elegy for her father.

25 Commenting on local gossip by "women who wore sensible stuff dresses" about her aunt's white costume, Bianchi concludes, "And the only person who never thought of it as a mystery was Emily herself, as she moved about her father's house and garden. They could no more approach her than they could make the moon come down and sit on their parlor sofas!" Emily Dickinson Face to Face, p. 37.

26 Leyda, Years and Hours, II:480-481.

27 Leyda, "Introduction," in Years and Hours, I:xxi.

28 The Reverend Jonathan L. Jenkins, in his memorial sermon for Edward Dickinson, suggested a close relationship between her father's religious views and ED's: "He had no great faith in ceremonies, in formulas of doctrine. He was free in his speech about religion, most unconventional in his practices. His religion was however most excellent and genuine." Sewall, The Life, I:68.

29 Leyda, Years and Hours, II:473.

30 Barbara Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976).

31 L, III, PF 36.

32 See Barbara J. Williams. "A Room of Her Own: Emily Dickinson as Woman Artist. in Cheryl L. Brown and Karen Olson, eds.. Feminist Criticism: Essays on Theory, Poetry, ami Prose (Metuchen. N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978), pp. 69-91.

33 Jack L. Capps. Emily Dickinson's Reading: 1836-1886 (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1966). The clearest perspective on her literary habits, including her disposition to read "competitively and for companionship." may be found in Sewall. "Books and Reading." in The Life: II: chap. 28.

34 Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).

35 Emily Stipes Watts, The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), chaps. 3-5.

36Walden may well be the closest parallel in American literature to Dickinson's assessment of values, and it resembles her work in its paradoxical application of Yankee economics to spiritual growth. "When a man dies he kicks the dust," Thoreau wrote in his chapter "Economy," and his neighbors buy the dust (even a dried tapeworm) at auctions. The Frost excerpt comes from "New Hampshire." which contrasts New England pride in scarcity with a national zeal for surplus. Taylor had speculated in "Gods Selecting Love in the Decree" that colonial Yankees would have admired God's coach sent to carry the saints to heaven but would have rejected it as too expensive.

37 A 25 July 1878 editorial in the Republican suggested one of Helen Hunt Jackson's Amherst neighbors as Saxe Holm on the basis of subtle mystical questions found in the stories, morbidity, ideality, weirdness, interpolated poems "like strains of solemn music floating at night from some way-side church" with each thought "complete and rare, solemn with the solemnity of intense conviction." The domestic scenery to which the tales were limited, the smallness of the episodes, and the writer's humorlessness were all felt to point away from Mrs. Jackson as author and toward some reclusive woman whom the editorialist envisaged as "robed in white" like Hawthorne's Hilda. A later editorial note in the 3 August 1878 Republican terminated speculation with fact: "we happen to know that no person by the name of Dickinson is in any way responsible for the Saxe Holm stories." Leyda, Years and Hours, II:295-297.

38 Reviews of the Poems (1890) were mixed but surprisingly plentiful, as Klaus Lubbers demonstrates in Emily Dickinson: The Critical Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), chap. 2. Reader response may be estimated by the rapid appearance of new printings—five editions between 12 November 1890 and February 1891, with a second volume in preparation.

39 Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture.

40 Leyda, Years and Hours, I:xxix-xxx.

Douglas Leonard (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "'Chastisement of Beauty': A Mode of the Religious Sublime in Dickinson's Poetry," in American Transcendental Quarterly, University of Rhode Island, Vol. 1, No. 3, September, 1987, pp. 247-56.

[In the following essay, Leonard considers Dickinson as a Romantic poet, arguing that her emphasis on emotion in her poetry (like that of other Romantic poets) is rooted in the eighteenth-century notion of the sublime.]

Emily Dickinson shared with other Romantic poets, American and European, the intuition that the age of reason had run its course and had failed to bring the hoped-for illumination and order. In the new century, as the focus turned toward the self, the feelings of the individual tended to replace authority and schema in the measure of truth and beauty. From the beginning, Dickinson's poetry reflects the poet's awareness that emotional sensations occur in various dimensions within the consciousness, so that joy and grief, for example, or exultation and fear, may combine in single complex reactions. The most intense emotions, in fact, are frequently the most paradoxical. The combination of emotional opposites would become characteristic in Dickinson's poetry, and it is in fact the indivisible unity of terror and ecstasy which constituted what Dickinson considered the most intense emotion of all, what she called "awe."

Dickinson's expression of emotion, like that of other Romantics, has its roots in the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the sublime. There is no doubt that Dickinson was aware of the tradition, even if we cannot be certain whether she had studied Edmund Burke's influential Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful or Kant's Critique of Judgement (Gelpi, 124-125). At least two of Dickinson's Mount Holyoke textbooks summarize the sublime aesthetic: Samuel P. Newman's Practical System of Rhetoric and Thomas C. Upham's Elements of Mental Philosophy (Newman, 42-47; Upham, 300-309). Newman relates the sublime to his discussion of literary taste and style, citing examples; and Upham, following Burke, more lengthily explains characteristics which evoke sublime emotions: expanse, height, depth, color, light, darkness, sound, motion, and power. An immediate relevance can be seen in the passage in which Upham contemplates the sublimity of the sea.

In regard to the ocean, one of the most sublime objects which the human mind can contemplate, it cannot be doubted that one element of its sublimity is the unlimited expanse which it presents…. The sailor on the wide ocean, when, in the solitary watches of the night, he casts his eye upward to the lofty, illuminated sky, has a sublime emotion; and he feels the same strong sentiment striving within him when, a moment afterward, he thinks of the vast unfathomable abyss beneath him, over which he is suspended by the frail plank of his vessel. (302-303)

Upham's description of sea travel seems to underlie the sublime expression in this familiar early Dickinson poem (76).

Exultation is the going Of an inland soul to sea, Past the houses—past the headlands— Into deep Eternity— Bred as we, among the mountains, Can the sailor understand The divine intoxication Of the first league out from land?1

Whether the sea represents passionate love, life, art, "circumference," or, as the words "eternity" and "divine" seem to suggest, mystical union with God, the specific reference of the poem is not material for the present purpose (Sewall, 2:522; Miller, 66-67, 155-156; Cody, 304; Ward, 42). The quality of the emotion is the poet's first concern. Dickinson calls going out into "deep Eternity" "exultation," an emotion usually considered unadulterated bliss. But for Dickinson as for Upham, the "divine intoxication" of the adventurer is composed of dread as well as exultation. Dickinson's own contribution to the sublime aesthetic in "Exultation is the going" is that her "going to sea" is symbolic of an inner voyaging.

In 1848, Austin Dickinson presented a translation entitled "From Longinus on the Sublime" at the Spring Exhibition of Amherst College (Leyda, 1:142). Although there is no direct evidence that Emily and Austin shared their knowledge of the sublime, it is probable that they did since the two corresponded frequently into the mid-fifties. Until Austin married Susan Gilbert in 1856, he was Emily's closest intellectual companion. We know further that around the same time Austin sent her a book of poetry by Alexander Smith, a leader of the so-called "Spasmodic School" of poets who during the 1850s practiced an extreme form of sublime expression. Dickinson replied in a letter to her brother that she enjoyed Smith's "exquisite frensy" (Anderson, 68; Letters 1:256).2

Dickinson's reading of James Thomson and Ralph Waldo Emerson would also have made her familiar with the aesthetic of the sublime. Thomson's The Seasons, cited as an example of the sublime poetic technique in Dickinson's college rhetoric, was also in the Dickinson's family library. She quoted from Thomson's verse on at least two occasions (Capps, 75, 111, 187; Poems 131). In addition, Dickinson certainly knew Emerson's essay "The Oversoul," which consciously employs the sublime in a way Dickinson would follow, if not precisely imitate. "The influx of the Divine mind into our minds," Emerson writes, "agitates men with awe and delight" (Emerson, 223).

Although the external evidence that Dickinson understood the concepts of the sublime is persuasive, the evidence within the poems is compelling.3 A poem of 1862 (582) demonstrates especially well Dickinson's use of Burkean elements of the sublime.

Inconceivably solemn! Things so gay Pierce—by the very Press Of Imagery— Their far Parades—order on the eye With a mute Pomp— A pleading Pageantry— Flags, are a brave sight— But no true Eye Ever went by One— Steadily— Music's triumphant— But the fine Ear Winces with delight Are drums too near—

The poem's subject is the emotional response of consciousness to a "Parade" of imagery in the natural world, and Dickinson here identifies a number of aspects of the sublime: color, brightness, intensity, arrangement, motion, and loudness. Bright "imagery" is piercing; its arrangement viewed from afar affects one like "Pomp" and "Pageantry"; flags are so "brave" that a "true Eye" cannot steadily look at one; and triumphant music makes the "fine Ear" wince with "delight." Dickinson seems to echo Burke in her reference to a "true Eye" and "fine Ear," for Burke states that sublime perception requires "finer and more delicate organs, on which, and by which, the imagination and perhaps the other mental powers act" (135).

Such examples of Dickinson's sublime response to things in the natural world could be multiplied, but I want to concern myself especially with her use of an inner sublime. As in "Exultation is the going," Dickinson often evokes the sublime to describe the internal landscape of her own consciousness. The vastness, loudness, power, suddenness, brightness, obscurity, difficulty, and infinity of the consciousness elicit the delightful terror which constitutes the sublime. In "It's Hour with itself (1225), written about 1872, Dickinson looks into the interior sublime.

It's Hour with itself The Spirit never shows. What Terror would enthrall the Street Could Countenance disclose The Subterranean Freight The cellars of the Soul— Thank God the loudest Place he made Is licensed to be still.

The isolated self-scrutiny of consciousness is represented as sublime by use of the metaphor of a gothic cellar. The terror must remain a secret because it would "enthrall"—either in the sense of delight or enchant—any who discovered it. Yet this "loudest place" is also simultaneously "still."

Another poem depicting the interior sublime, "'Tis so appalling—it exhilirates [sic]" (281) is exactly the kind of Dickinson poem which is condemned by some critics as being too vague, meaninglessly obscure.

'Tis so appalling—it exhilirates— So over Horror, it half Captivates—

The Soul stares after it, secure— To know the worst, leaves no dread more— To scan a Ghost, is faint— But grappling, conquers it— How easy, Torment, now— Suspense kept sawing so— The Truth, is Bald, and Cold— But that will hold— If any are not sure— We show them—prayer— But we, who know, Stop hoping, now— Looking at Death, is Dying— Just let go the Breath— And not the pillow at your cheek So Slumbereth— Others, Can wrestle— Your's, is done— And so of Wo, bleak dreaded—come, It sets the Fright at liberty— And Terror's free— Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!

Some attempt to "salvage" this "obscure" poem by interpreting it by Dickinson's life. Richard B. Sewall, for example, considers the poem the "obverse" of "I felt a funeral in my brain" (280) in that it is a healthier response to the departure of her alleged would-be lover, Samuel Bowles. "In the therapeutic view," Sewall explains, "she has come near mastering her affliction and is on the way to health…. The Truth of the third stanza is her failure to elicit response from Bowles (or whomever or whatever); the Death of the fourth stanza is the death of her hopes" (2:503). Instead, what really creates unity and coherence in '"Tis so appalling—it exhilirates" is its steady concern with describing the emotive consciousness facing the prospect of death. Prayer, suspense, torment, dying, a ghost, and "Wo"—none of these things is the true subject of the poem; they are metaphors for sublime emotions evoked by the contemplation of death.

"He fumbles at your Soul" (315) is a description of spiritual intercourse between the persona and God, and Dickinson makes full use of sexual imagery to convey the emotional intensity of the relationship, its extremes of pleasure and pain.4 At the same time, besides further amplifying the intensity of the sensations, Dickinson's use of the sublime serves to indicate the persona's profound ambivalence in response to the experience of intimacy between the self and God.

He fumbles at your Soul As Players at the Keys Before they drop full Music on— He stuns you by degrees— Prepares your brittle Nature For the Etherial Blow By fainter Hammers—further heard— Then nearer—Then so slow Your Breath has time to straighten— Your Brain—to bubble Cool— Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt— That scalps your naked Soul— When Winds takes Forests in their Paws— The Universe—is—still—

The metaphoric fabric of this unusual sonnet is richly interwoven from the first line. The word "fumbles" suggests an ineptitude of overly-eager passion on the part of God, but of course it is the soul, not the body, which is here being "undressed." Immediately, though, the sexual metaphor is set aside temporarily in favor of a musical one. But the players' "fumbling" at the keys implies not clumsiness so much as the gentle fluttering of skillful hands as they play very softly in that moment just before the abruptly "drop" the "full music on."5 The musical metaphor is also temporarily suspended as Dickinson now compares the increasing intensity of the spiritual encounter with a physical attack. God "stuns" the soul "by degrees," in order to prepare it for the "etherial blow." The soul is "brittle" because it is mortal, limited, and fallen, and therefore needs to be "prepared" for intimacy with the divine. So God approaches the soul gradually, like the "fainter Hammers" of the piano heard from a distance. At the same time, the "Hammers" God wields associate him with Thor in violence, even while their far away music suggests his gentleness.

Now the sublime suspense builds as the music approaches nearer and then slows so that the persona's breathing returns to normal and her temperature cools. These physical references set up the climax of the spiritual experience, which is again described in sexual terms. God, like Thor or Zeus, now "Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt," which "scalps" the "naked Soul." Surely Dickinson was not unaware of the sexual connotations of her imagery or of her references to the lustful gods of mythology. Thus Dickinson's poem reaches a terrible climax of violence, a climax all the more shocking because it is the objective correlative of the spiritual union between God and the soul.

The final two lines are set apart from the rest of the sonnet to indicate the stillness which follows the boom of the thunder. Here Dickinson employs another metaphor from nature to convey this peaceful aftermath: "When Winds take Forests in their Paws—/The Universe—is—still—." This image is difficult, but it follows that the "Winds" refer to the spirit of God, while the "Forests," as they are material, refer to the human being who has been visited by God. The "Paws" of the wind, like a cat's, can be gentle as well as violent. At the end the "Universe" of the persona's consciousness is stilled, both because it is enervated after its painfully intense communion with God, and because God himself has fulfilled and quieted the soul in visiting it.

In sum, "He fumbles at your Soul," in order to convey the complex nature of spiritual intimacy between the soul and God, compares God successively with a lover, a musician, the music itself, a scalping attacker, a wielder of thunderbolts, the wind, and a cat. To do this in fourteen lines while maintaining unity is an astonishing achievement. This rare sonnet expresses the ambivalance of the soul's response to communion with God. Consciousness plainly desires that communion as the body desires sexual love, and the soul enjoys communion with God as one's aesthetic sensibility enjoys music. Both experiences combine gentleness and violence. At the same time, because of its "brittle Nature," its humanness, consciousness fears and resists being "violated" by the sovereign will of the divine spirit. What is finite cannot contain the infinite, yet the soul can receive God. It is not appropriate, then, to read "He fumbles at your Soul" as an explicit or even "sublimated" rape fantasy, just as it is not appropriate to dismiss the mystical experience of Teresa of Avila, for example, as a rape fantasy.6 Have critics accused John Donne of indulging in rape fantasy in his Holy Sonnet 14 because he asks God to "take," "enthrall," and "ravish" him? Dickinson, like Donne, has simply put to use a number of things from the natural world, including human sexuality, in order to communicate a supernatural experience which is both anguish and bliss.

Whenever Dickinson desired to characterize the most intense emotions—sexual, aesthetic, or spiritual—she usually did so in terms of the sublime. In Burke's phrase, the sublime is "productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (39). A final poem will take us the last step in Dickinson's emotional consciousness. She considered awe the highest of all emotions, and in fact the essence of the sublime response is awe. "My period had come for Prayer" (564) also treats the sublime experience of the soul encountering God, but this time the metaphor is a cosmic quest, in which the persona now becomes the aggressive partner in the relationship.

My period had come for Prayer— No other Art—would do— My Tactics missed a rudiment— Creator—Was it you? God grows above—so those who pray Horizons—must ascend— And so I stepped upon the North To see this Curious Friend— His House was not—no sign had He— By Chimney—not by Door Could I infer his Residence— Vast Prairies of Air Unbroken by a Settler— Were all that I could see— Infinitude—Had'st Thou no Face That I might look on Thee? The Silence condescended— Creation stopped—for Me— But awed beyond my errand— I worshipped—did not "pray"—

Here Dickinson presents prayer as a difficult journey through the cosmos into God's presence. The childlike persona travels beyond the physical horizon of the "North" to seek the "house" of the Creator, and finds only "vast Prairies of Air," or what Inder Nath Kher has called "the landscape of absence." The infinitude of space, itself a sublime image, is extended in its sublime quality by the suggestion of the persona's solitude and lostness. Finally, when she has cried out to God in desperation, "the Silence condescended." As in the poem which begins "I know that He exists" (338), God is here described as removed, dwelling in "Silence," until suddenly he "surprises" the seeker with bliss.7 This supernatural visitation is the most sublime experience of all, again because it involves the union of the human with the divine, the finite with the infinite, and the personal with the universal. The persona, now no longer a child, is "awed" by the experience. No longer interested in addressing God in petitionary prayer, she simply worships. After all, what most she sought from God was communion with himself.

"My period had come for Prayer," though not, I think, a great poem, shows the primacy of awe in Dickinson's consciousness. Awe was her consummate emotion, combining qualities like beauty and terror, faith and doubt, into a sublime whole. In a poem of 1874, "Wonder is not precisely Knowing" (1331), Dickinson calls the paradoxical sensation of awe "a beautiful but bleak condition," as the consciousness, which sees and believes but is never certain, experiences a fundamental suspense at once both "delightful" and "mangling."

A year before her death, in thanking an unknown correspondent for the gift of a book (presumably a Bible), Dickinson expanded on the paradoxical character of awe.

I thank you with wonder—Should you ask me my comprehension of a starlight Night, Awe were my only reply, and so of the mighty Book—It stills, incites, infatuates—blesses and blames in one. Like Human Affection, we dare not touch it, yet flee, what else remains? … How vast is the chastisement of Beauty, given us by our Maker! A Word is inundation, when it comes from the Sea—Peter took the Marine Walk at great risk. (Letters 3:858)

This passage, as it reveals how Dickinson associated awe and the sublime, also manifests the convergence in Dickinson's thinking of things awe-inspiring. These things had become as one in her consciousness: the infinity of the night sky, beauty, the Bible, human love, the ocean of divine love, and the walk of faith. Dickinson's poems frequently express an awareness of the multifold miracle of existence, and her own circumscribing consciousness of it all was itself both part and whole of the awful miracle. Manifestly, Dickinson considered the ecstatic terror of such consciousness the appropriate subject for a great many poems. In her emphasis and insights she was well ahead of her time, while also conscious of the long tradition of mystical poetry behind her.


1 Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All quotations from Dickinson's poems and identifying numbers are from this edition. Poems 281, 564, 582, and 1225 are from the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Copyright 1929, 1935 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright renewed 1957, 1963 by Mary L. Hampson. By permission of Little, Brown and Company.

2 An obscure comment in a letter to T. W. Higginson might lead to a speculation that he had suggested to Dickinson that her verse savored too much of the "spasmodic school," but Dickinson's opaque reference to his supposed suggestion cannot be offered as a firm proof: "You think my gait 'spasmodic'—I am in danger—sir—You think me 'uncontrolled'—I have no tribunal" (Letters 2:409). The letter from Higginson is missing.

3 Gelpi (192 n. 55) lists some poems he classifies as "natural sublime": 1609,210, 1171, 1677, 1678, 1419, 1217, 1486.

4 "He fumbles at your Soul," has a confused history of explication. George F. Whicher, 101, started it by saying that the "he" in the poem is the preacher Wadsworth, the alleged lover of Dickinson. Anderson, 17, agrees "he" is a preacher, but a "hell-fire preacher," not Wadsworth. Chase, 204-205, thinks "he" is a lover like Wadsworth and that Dickinson's ambiguity is "bad" or vague. Johnson, in Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography, 237, restricts his interpretation of "he" in the poem to Wadsworth. William R. Sherwood, who makes reference to all the readings above in 108-109 and 255, notes 116-118, thinks Dickinson's "he" is God, as do Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, II, 1238. Sewall, II, 451, note 703, argues that the "he" is not Wadsworth.

5 Music is sublime for Dickinson. See Letters, Letter 390, II, 507, in which Dickinson says to her cousin Frances Norcross: "Glad you heard Rubinstein…. He makes me think of polar nights Captain Hall could tell! Going from ice to ice! What an exchange of awe!"

6 St. Teresa's account of her famous "ecstasy": "Besides me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them…. But it was our Lord's will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names…. In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it" (Teresa 210 and passim).

7 The awful "silence" dominates more ambiguously in "I felt a funeral in my brain" (280), where the persona ends her cosmic voyage of consciousness "wrecked, solitary" with her companion a personified "silence."

Works Cited

Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson's Poetry, Stairway of Surprise. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Brooks, Cleanth, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren. American Literature: The Makers and the Making. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson's Reading. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Chase Richard. Emily Dickinson. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951.

Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955.

——. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Oversoul." Essays: First Series. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895.

Gelpi, Albert J. Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955.

Kher, Inder Nath. The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson's Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

Miller, Ruth E. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middle-town, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

Newman, Samuel P. A Practical System of Rhetoric. 20th ed. New York: Mark H. Newman, 1846.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974.

Sherwood, William R. Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Act of Emily Dickinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Teresa, of Avila, Saint. The Life of St. Teresa. J. M. Cohen, tr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.

Upham, Thomas C. Elements of Mental Philosophy. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1850.

Ward, Theodora. The Capsule of the Mind, Chapters in the Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Whicher, George F. This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938.

Further Reading

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Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor. Ad Feminam: Women and Literature, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, 214 p.

Provides a feminist analysis of the light and dark imagery in Dickinson's poems.

Bennett, Paula. "Beyond the Dip of Bell." In her Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Key Women Writers, series edited by Sue Roe, pp. 24-50. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Studies Dickinson's apparent desire to exceed the conventional limits of poetry and language.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Emily Dickinson. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, 204 p.

Provides a collection of previously published essays on Dickinson. The essays focus on such issues as Dickinson's cultural and literary influences, and her poetic style, themes, and techniques.

Bray, Paul. "Emily Dickinson as Visionary." Raritan 12, No. 1 (Summer 1992): 113-37.

Maintains that Dickinson experienced an "abnormally heightened mental or spiritual" awareness and examines the way she used her poetry to control this excess.

Cody, John. "A Plank In Reason." In Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson, edited by Paul J. Ferlazzo, pp. 147-67. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984. Reprinted from After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1971, pp. 291-315.

Offers a psychoanalytic approach to Dickinson's life and works.

Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 160 p.

Analyzes Dickinson's verse within the context of nineteenth-century American women's literature, observing that during this time period women writers were consumed by frustration with the cultural proscription against addressing their personal experiences, especially in the areas of "sexuality, ambition, and anger…."

Juhasz, Suzanne. "Writing Doubly: Emily Dickinson and Female Experience." Legacy 3, No. 1 (Spring 1986): 5-15.

Examines the "doubleness" present in Dickinson's poetry, identifying this as an indication "of the ontological situation of women in patriarchal culture."

Kirkby, Joan. Women Writers: Emily Dickinson. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1991, 163 p.

Offers a book-length study of Dickinson's life and work, focusing on gender issues, the Gothic influence in Dickinson's poetry, and the poems dealing with nature.

Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. New York: Continuum, 1989, 204 p.

Examines Dickinson's life and poetry, maintaining that Dickinson produced "a poetry for all time," not to be understood simply within the context of the poet's immediate background.

Loeffelholz, Mary. "Violence and the Other(s) of Identity." In her Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory, pp. 81-115. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Studies the conflict between the feminist and psycho-analytic approaches to Dickinson's poetry.

Leder, Sharon, with Andrea Abbott. The Language of Exclusion: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, 238 p.

Compares Dickinson's and Rossetti's poetry, focusing on gender issues, particularly the exclusion of women from full participation in nineteenth-century society.

Small, Judy Jo. "Experiments in Sound," in her Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson's Rhyme, pp. 117-39. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Analyzes the acoustical effects of Dickinson's rhyme structure.

Ward, R. Bruce. "Center." In his The Gift of Screws: The Poetic Strategies of Emily Dickinson, pp. 74-108. Troy, N.Y.: The Whitston Publishing Company, 1994.

Argues that Dickinson's "creative center" is revealed in her poetry and may be studied without psychological speculation.

Additional coverage of Dickinson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group : Dictionary of Literary Biography , Vol. 1, and Poetry Criticism vol 1.

Nadean Bishop (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Queen of Calvary: Spirituality in Emily Dickinson," in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1987-1988, pp. 49-60.

[In the following essay, Bishop asserts that the spirituality so central to Dickinson 's poetry is characterized by the poet's dismissal of contemporary religious dogma as well as by her decision, "based on Self-Reliance," to envision her own version of God and heaven.]

Many books and essays on Emily Dickinson's poetry have appeared in the last five years, and each approaches the question of spirituality divergently depending on the author's dominant focus. Barbara Mossberg deals with Dickinson as dutiful and rebellious daughter; Jane Eberwein concentrates on strategies of limitation; Sandra Gilbert rehabilitates domesticity; and Vivian R. Pollak analyzes the anxiety of gender. The critics agree, however, that spirituality holds a central place in Dickinson's poetry.

Charles Anderson concludes his essay. "Grief." in Harold Bloom's 1985 collection on Dickinson by saying: "She dedicated herself to creating the one thing of absolute value that, in her view, the human being is capable of. It goes under the rather inadequate name of religion, or art, the vision that comes with human's utmost reach towards truth and beauty. (Anderson. 35) Jane Eberwein asserts: "God was the most important person in Emily Dickinson's life. Her relationship with him excelled all others in endurance and intensity…. God was awe; he was also love. Infi nite and immortal, he transcended all human imagination…. She was drawn to the power and safety God manifested. She reverenced awe…. She felt free to quarrel with the jealous, angry, cruel figment of other people's imaginations because that figure was not the divinity she never stopped worshipping." (Eberwein, Strategies, 244-245)

Who was the divinity Emily Dickinson worshipped? What is the "heaven of her own" that she created? How does her love of Nature feed her spirituality?

Too often in the past, critics have taken Emily Dickinson's Mount Holyoke rejection of the God of the revival meeting as her final word on divinity. In writing girlhood friends who accepted the vengeful Yahweh God, she did often put herself in the opposite camp with some regret:

I think of the perfect happiness I experienced while I felt I was an heir of heaven as of a delightful dream, out of which the Evil one bid me wake & again return to the world & its pleasures. Would that I had not listened to his winning words! … I determined to devote my whole life to [God's] service & desired that all might taste of the stream of living water from which I cooled my thirst. But the world allured me & in an unguarded moment I listened to her syren voice. (L 11)

Yet as Margaret Homans documents so fully in "Emily Dickinson and Poetic Identity," "When she writes to her more religious friends, her apparently genuine self-depreciation may be as fictive as the most extravagant of her announced fantasies." (Homan, 133)

Much of what we know about Emily Dickinson's spirituality can be summarized by quoting a stanza from Harold Bloom's favorite Dickinson poem, chosen because it is such a strong "work of un-naming, a profound and shockingly original cognitive act of negation." (Bloom, 5)

The Tint I cannot take—is best— The Moments of Dominion That happen on the Soul And leave it with a Discontent Too exquisite—to tell—(P 627)

Bloom exults: "It is rugged and complete, a poetics, and a manifesto of Self-Reliance." (Bloom, 6)

I will argue that Emily Dickinson's spirituality is also marked by negation of the existing religious dogmas and a decision based on Self-Reliance to remake God and to create her own Heaven. This process is parallel to that undertaken during this decade by a dozen prominent theologians, who, like Carter Heyward in The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation, describe a deity, no longer Omnipotent, Invisible, Only Wise, but a God constantly in process, interacting lovingly with suffering humankind.

As Barbara Mossberg so carefully documents in Emily Dickinson: When a Writer Is a Daughter, the God of the Calvinist religion of Dickinson's day was an "Awful Father of Love" whom Emily came to see as like her own father:

An analysis of the representation of the Deity in Dickinson's poems confirms the parental archetype: rejecting, absent, absent-minded, careless, businesslike, incompetent, contradictory, and pernicious. Edward Dickinson came first: God is simply a blown-up version, a ballooned Edward Dickinson on a string whom the daughter addressed as "Father in Heaven." (Mossberg, Daughter, 115)

Emily Dickinson shows how often this "Burglar! Banker—Father!" God of "I never lost as much but twice" (P 49) uses punishment and repression to gain obedience. The ultimate threat is "Judgment Day," which provides a corrective to the young child's impulse to "run away/ From Him—and Holy Ghost—and All—."

I never felt at Home—Below— And in the Handsome Skies I shall not feel at Home—I know— I don't like Paradise— Because it's Sunday—all the time— And Recess—never comes— And Eden'll be so lonesome Bright Wednesday Afternoons— If God could make a visit— Or ever took a Nap— So not to see us—but they say Himself—a Telescope Perennial beholds us— Myself would run away From Him—and Holy Ghost—and All— But there's the "Judgment Day"!(P 413)

This "Papa Above" is unresponsive and distant:

Of Course—I prayed— And did God Care? He cared as much as on the Air A Bird—had stamped her foot— And cried "Give Me"—(from P 376)

In poem after poem the poet is conciliatory and patient in the face of an Adamant God who is begged to be "sweet," challenged to "drop down":

Just Once! Oh least Request! Could Adamant refuse So small a Grace So scanty put, Such agonizing terms? Would not a God of Flint Be conscious of a sigh As down His Heaven dropt remote "Just Once" Sweet Deity?(P 1076)

Dickinson discusses at length the reasons for rejecting "the Father and the Son" of her childhood:

Who were "the Father and the Son" We pondered when a child, And what had they to do with us And when portentous told With inference appalling By Childhood fortified We thought, at least they are no worse Than they have been described. Who are "the Father and the Son" Did we demand Today "The Father and the Son" himself Would doubtless specify— But had they the felicity When we desired to know, We better Friends had been, perhaps, Than time ensue to be— We start—to learn that we believe But once—entirely— Belief, it does not fit so well When altered frequently— We blush, that Heaven if we achieve— Event ineffable— We shall have shunned until ashamed To own the Miracle— (P 1258)

Contemporary women theologians have taken up the cry against the gods of patriarchy, particularly for the concept of God as Father. Union Theological Seminary Hebrew scholar Phyllis Trible wrote as early as 1973: "Israel repudiated the idea of sexuality in God. Unlike fertility gods, Yahweh is neither male nor female, neither he nor she … As Creator and Lord, Yahweh embraces and transcends both sexes. To translate for our immediate concerns: the nature of the God of Israel defies sexism." (Trible, "Depatriarchialism," 34) Mary Daly in Beyond God the Father exclaims: "If God is male, then male is God!" (Daly, 19)

Systematic Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether argues for Mother-Father God as imagery of the rootedness and groundedness in the universe but delineates a weakness in the whole conceptualization of the parent image for God:

God becomes a neurotic parent who does not want us to grow up. To become autonomous and responsible for our lives is the gravest sin against God. Patriarchal theology uses the parent image for God to prolong spiritual infantilism as virtue and to make autonomy and assertion of free will a sin … We need to start with language for the Divine as redeemer, as liberator, as one who fosters full personhood and, in that context, speak of God/ ess as creator, as source of being. (Ruether, 69-70)

Dickinson gives us dozens of examples of this little girl persona, but as Mossberg illustrates, she uses it to play along with society's view of her insignificance and turn it to her own advantage: "Her creation and obsessive use of the little girl persona appears to be a brilliant but inevitable metaphor for her experience as a woman poet in her culture, reflecting and resolving her 'small size'—the lack of society's esteem for and encouragement of her mental abilities. … Seeing her as a child could be a way to neutralize her, neuter her, keep her well-behaved, as if against her will—to shut her up." (Mossberg, Nursery, 47)

They shut me up in Prose— As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet— Because they liked me "still"— Still! Could themself have peeped— And seen my Brain—go round— They might as wise have lodged a Bird For Treason—in the Pound— (from Ñ 613)

Through her disguise as "a little ninny, a little pussy cat, a little Red Riding Hood" (L I, 117), Emily kept peace with the men in her household and with their mirrored images in heaven. She used her extraordinary poetic talent to escape the Pound, the cage of patriarchal repression employed in that era to keep women "still." But most women of her era and many of our own have been silenced, neutered, oppressed through the image of the Father God who keeps us in infantilism.

Calvinism applauded self-abnegation. Sin was defined as self-aggrandizement and love by contrast as "unconditional forgiveness … the concrete relatedness of an I to a Thou, in which the I casts aside all its particularities, all its self-affirmations, everything which separates it from the Thou." (Saiving, 27) Thus this theology condemned autocrats like Edward Dickinson but allowed them power; it applauded sacrifice like that of Emily Dickinson, but made powerlessness its reward.

Delivering the Dudleian lectures at Harvard in 1960, Valerie Saiving challenged these traditional definitions and showed that for women, socialized to be the little girl in Dickinson's poems or the selfless mother of Victorian "angel-in-the-house," for idealism was actually socialized into sin of an opposite nature from that of men. The sins which the church Fathers castigate are "pride, will-to-power, exploitation, self-assertiveness, and the treatment of others as objects." (Saiving, 35) As Saiving delineates them, women's sins are better suggested by such terms as "triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one's own self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence … in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self." (Saiving. 37) Thus the temptation to remain a child, to be locked in perpetual Pounds, to be subordinate to the Imperial godhead, creates those sins which lead a woman to loss of self. Dickinson's cheeky rebelliousness that Mossberg captures with such glee indicates one strategy for thwarting the autocrats in her household, but she became able to refuse to make such self-abnegating concessions to the Divine.

What she gained by putting on the little girl persona in the Dickinson household was protection. As she wrote to Mrs. Holland soon after her father's death: "Thank you for the Affection. It helps me up the Stairs at Night, where as I passed my Father's Door—I used to think was safety." (L 432) As Jane Eberwein tells us: "If God the Father offered similar protection, she might feel indebted to him. Yet flawed teaching in childhood had undermined her confidence in a way that fastened upon her memory." (Eberwein, Limitations, 242) Thus she shapes her address to God the Father with an irony felt by many contemporary women so trapped in misapprehensions about the godhead:

"Heavenly Father"—take to thee The supreme iniquity Fashioned by thy candid Hand In a moment contraband— Though to trust us—seem to us More respectful—"We are Dust"— We apologize to thee For thine own Duplicity—(P 1461)

Process theology portrays a God who is not autocratic, who does not act arrogantly without consultation with the human beings whose lives are being affected, and who rewards collaborative effort over individualism. Carter Heyward and John Cobb give extensive evidence from scripture and human history for demolishing the duplicitous "Papa Above" and forming communities where God acts in a trusting way toward interactive humans working to bring the Kingdom on earth. Men as well as women today find the Calvinistic God of Edward Dickinson unacceptable.

We are not surprised to see Dickinson rejecting the God of her Father. Jane Eberwein summarizes: "Dickinson's father-master-lover figure elicits awe, terror, even rage. She finds him fascinating but cruel and knows that she must somehow evade his dominance that reduces her to a condition of feminine victimization even as she gathers to herself his power." (Eberwein, 123) Her response to "the Son" is quite altered from that of the Father, but sometimes even Jesus appears to be not loving but punishing as in "He strained my faith."

He strained my faith— Did he find it supple? Shook my strong trust— Did it then—yield? Hurled my belief— But—did he shatter—it? Racked—with suspense— Not a nerve failed! Wrung me—with Anguish— But I never doubted him— 'Tho' for what wrong He did never say— Stabbed—while I sued His sweet forgiveness— Jesus—it's your little "John"! Don't you know—me?(P 497)

Dickinson here places in the character of John, the beloved disciple, those attributes which she might wish could be found reciprocally in the godhead: thoroughgoing faithfulness, strong trust, willingness to forgive. The contrast between the expectation of infinite love and ultimate protection and the reality of anguish combined with guilt for who knows what wrong creates a natural rebelliousness.

"The Son" who is simply a replica of the Father holds no appeal. But the loving Jesus came to be cherished by Dickinson because of his suffering. As she told a neighbor toward the end of her life: "When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is 'acquainted with Grief,' we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own." (L 932) The Jesus whom Dickinson loved and listened to was the co-suffering God of Liberation Theology.

Jon Sobrino, speaking of Theology in the Americas of the martyrdom of many in El Salvador because of their solidarity with rebel priests, was asked, "Don't the people of El Salvador shake their fists at heaven and ask God, 'Why are you doing this to us?'" He looked incredulous for a moment and then said, "That's not the God we worship in El Salvador. Our God is constantly with us in our terror and bereavement, bringing solace and healing when tyranny robs us of our sons and daughters." The God of Liberation Theology is no longer the All Powerful God of Calvinism, but God is instead the comforting loving one whom Dickinson seems constantly to seek: "Don't you know—me?" Far from the alienation of the punishing Father in the sky, this God kneels like the Good Samaritan over the battered body of the faithful to do "all that is needful" to bring healing.

Dickinson honors the Christ of the Crucifixion but includes that among many other human traumas in "One Crucifixion is recorded—only."

One Crucifixion is recorded—only— How many be Is not affirmed of Mathematics— Or History— One Calvary—exhibited to Stranger— As many be As persons—or Peninsulas— Gethsemane— Is but a Province—in the Being's Centre— Judea— For Journey—or Crusade's Achieving— Too near— Our Lord—indeed—made Compound Witness— And yet— There's newer—nearer Crucifixion Than That—(P 553)

Emily Dickinson continually returned to the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of John and saw not only the suffering servant so clearly delineated there but also the much more mystical personification of the Greek concept of Logos. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in her thoroughly documented study of the Jesus Movement called In Memory of Her, shows how closely John's portrait of the Logos parallels the Hebrew figure of Wisdom, Sophia. Greek women worshippers who feared the "merciless powers" in the worship of Isis, much as Dickinson rejects the approving God who decapitates the flowers, were attracted to Jesus. They saw him as "Jesus Christ the Sophia of God who appeared on earth and is now exalted as the Lord of the whole cosmos." (Fiorenza, 190) This cosmic Wisdom inspired acts of gentleness and kindness in egalitarian gatherings in the house churches in contrast to the hierarchical worship of the heathen cults. Priscilla is credited with teaching this concept in the church at Corinth, so that after the resurrection Jesus is understood by many as "cosmic Lord and life-giving Spirit-Sophia." Believers then participate in the power and energy of Christ-Sophia. (Fiorenza, 189-190)

John's community viewed themselves as living in this kind of universe, permeated by the power of the risen Christ. The Gospel of John presents eschatological acts such as "the coming of the Messiah, resurrection, judgment, eternal life," as "already present for the believer in the encounter with Jesus." (Perrin, 344) Their response was to act in harmony with Nature to promote the flow of healing energy.

Emily Dickinson, after rejecting the autocratic God of patriarchy, longs for the gentle and generous God and writes of a female deity who does exude this loving spirit:

Mama never forgets her birds, Though in another tree— She looks down just as often And just as tenderly As when her little mortal nest With cunning care she wove— If either of her "sparrows fall," She "notices," above.(P 164)

Adelaide Morris reconstructs the spiritual world Dickinson created in letters to her closest women friends—her sister Lavinia, Kate Scott Turner Anthon, Mrs. Holland, and the Norcross sisters—when she dared suggest "the possibility of constituting the world differently." (Morris, 111) "As Dickinson's imagery of female governance reveals, authority in this world belongs to female rulers. … The poems to Sue present queens without kings, reigning monarchs who across some distance salute each other's splendor and sovereignty." (Morris, 110) Often this imagery includes the weightiest theological concepts encapsulated in such phrases as "Queen of Calvary."

The formerly self-deprecating little girl can achieve the ultimate in self-affirmation in the context of this world which is constituted differently.

Mine—by the Right of the White Election! Mine—by the Royal Seal! Mine—by the Sign in the Scarlet prison— Bars—cannot conceal! Mine—here—in Vision—and in Veto! Mine—by the Grave's Repeal— Titled—Confirmed— Delirious Charter! Mine—long as Ages steal!(P 528)

Citing the "deft fusion of the language of love with the vocabulary of Christianity," by this woman whom Sandra Gilbert terms "this self-mythologizing New England nun," Gilbert goes on to focus on the daily "mysteries of domesticity." Dickinson's world is shown to be a world of Nature, a world of process and ritual:

This priestess of the daily, after all, continually meditated upon the extraordinary possibilities implicit in the ordinary flowerings of the natural world. In her "real" life as the "Myth of Amherst," she created a conservatory and a herbarium; in the supposed life of her poetry, she saw through surfaces to the "white foot" (302) of the lily, to the "mystic green" (24) where "Nicodemus" Mystery / Receives its annual reply" (140), to the time of "Ecstasy—and Dell" (392) and to the time when "the Landscape listens" (258). … For hers was a world of process in which everything was always turning into everything else, a world in which her own, and Nature's, "cocoon" continually tightened, and colors "teased," and, awakening into metamorphosis, she struggled to take "the clue Divine" (1099). (Gilbert, 41)

The poem from which Sandra Gilbert drew her title, "The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill," shows clearly Dickinson's devotion to Nature and her identification as one "Whose service—is to You—," one dwelling within those "Sweet Mountains," "My Strong Madonnas."

Sweet Mountains—Ye tell Me no lie— Never deny Me—Never fly— Those same unvarying Eyes Turn on Me—when I fail—or feign, Or take the Royal names in vain— Their far—slow—Violet Gaze— My Strong Madonnas—Cherish still— The Wayward Nun—beneath the Hill— Whose service—is to You— Her latest Worship—When the Day Fades from the Firmament away— To lift Her Brows on You—(P 722)

Embracing Nature as the universe in which our deepest spiritual quests find fulfillment, we may learn to see God and World as co-extensive as Beatrice Bruteau does:

As a consequence of this union and mutual indwelling there is no sense of opposition between God and the World. The life of the Deity pours continuously and unconditionally into the beings of the world, which develop not as a response to the Lord but as a spontaneous unfolding and blooming of the Divine Life which they themselves are in finite form. The life-energy circulates among the beings of the world, being communicated by each to all within the comprehensive oneness of the Divine Being … Love which is the Life of God … pours through us, radiating out from us to all other individuals, and reaching by means of us to newness of being in the finite realm. (Bruteau, 110)

Dickinson never forgot that the love which Jesus modeled in his suffering and which she experienced in the natural world must be expressed by human beings in very concrete ways. She constantly projects her hopes for deeper love and community and intimacy beyond the grave, but she also enacts them in her daily life. Her many charitable actions, the consoling poem and bouquet from her garden, the loving encouragement of the sick, all speak of her desire to make Love the equivalent of Life. Her letter of consolation to Higginson when his wife died is typical of dozens which promise the healing power of Love channeled from the Divine: "Do not try to be saved—but let Redemption find you—as it certainly will—Love is its own resuce, for we—at our supremest, are but its trembling Emblems." (L 522)

In the context of sharing compassionate healing energy with others so that life's anguish can become the basis for intimacy and the preparation for future joy, "I should have been too glad, I see—" can be read in a new way.

Earth would have been too much—I see— And Heaven—not enough for me— I should have had the Joy Without the Fear—to justify—(from P. 313)

Mortal experience, lived in mutuality, is not simply the contrastive bleakness to Heaven's grandeur but is most of all a training ground for the new Circumference. "The homelier time behind" prepares the faithful for the Victory. Christian concepts of Crucifixion are always tied to Resurrection; having practiced "Sabachthini" and gracious comforting of the bereaved in the manner of Jesus, she can anticipate acceptance into the Banquet on the "Shore beyond."

The poems of Emily Dickinson do indeed as Jane Eberwein reminds us:

testify to a lifelong process of religious search and communicate a grateful, loving adoration she found it impossible to express adequately in the language her Calvinist culture gave her. God reached her indirectly through everything that she loved, and she responded indirectly through the magical associations of language. As she told Judge Lord, "It may surprise you I speak of God—I know him but a little, but Cupid taught Jehovah to many an untutored Mind—Witchcraft is wiser than we—" (L 562) (Eberwein, 259)

Works Cited

Anderson, Charles R. "Despair," in Emily Dickinson, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Emily Dickinson. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Bruteau, Beatrice. "Nature and the Virgin Mary," in Womanspirit Rising, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Cobb, John Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence, New York: Seabury, 1979. New York: Seabury, 1979.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1973.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1960.

——. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroads, 1983.

Gelpi, Albert J. Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill: Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood," in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Heyward, Carter. The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

Homans, Margaret. "Emily Dickinson and Poetic Identity," in Emily Dickinson, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

——. "'Oh, Vision of Language!': Dickinson's Poems of Love and Death," in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

——. Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Juhasz, Suzanne. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Morris, Adalaide. '"The Love of Thee—a Prism Be': Men and Women in the Love Poetry of Emily Dickinson," in Suzanne Juhasz, ed., Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Mossberg, Barbara Antonina Clarke. "Emily Dickinson's Nursery Rhymes," in Suzanne Juhasz, ed., Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

——. Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Perrin, Norman, and Dennis Duling. The New Testament: An Introduction. New York: Crossroads, 1982.

Pollak, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Rich, Adrienne. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, New York: Norton, 1979.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983.

Saiving, Valerie. "The Human Situation: A Feminine View," in Womanspirit Rising, ed: Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.

Seager Baddeley, Laura, and Nadean Bishop. "Perpetual Noon: The Mystic Experience in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson," Studia Mystica, Spring, 1984.

Shurr, Samuel H. The Marriage of Emily Dickinson: A Study of the Fascicles. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983.

Trible, Phyllis. "Depatriarchialism in Biblical Interpretation," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 41 (1973): 34.

——. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.

Cristanne Miller (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11960

SOURCE: "Names and Verbs: Influences on the Poet's Language," in Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 131-203.

[In the following essay, Miller investigates the various works and authors who influenced the style, theories, and themes of Dickinson's poetry. Miller contends thatperhaps the greatest influence on Dickinson was the Bible, which served as a model for Dickinson's use of several techniques, including compression, parataxis, and disjunction]

Books are the best things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system … One must be an inventor to read well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar"

… I present a case for various stylistic, theoretical, and thematic influences on Dickinson's writing, examining probable models or sources for the most striking of her language techniques and ideas. Dickinson read widely and passionately. By the number of her references to books and quotations from them, it is evident that the Bible was her best known text—although, like Melville, she seems to have regarded it more as a "lexicon" of "certain phenomenal men" and mysteries than as an orthodox spiritual guide.1

Biblical style, in its King James version and as modified by seventeenth-century writers and Americans generally, provided a model for the extreme compression, parataxis, and disjunction of Dickinson's style. Contrary to the assumptions generally underlying scripturalism, however, Dickinson believes both that language is essentially fictitious or arbitrary and that language's potential for meaning exceeds the individual's control of it and its application to any single circumstance. For her, language is simultaneously inadequate and too powerful. It is, therefore, primarily a tool for delineating moments of epiphany or change, not the tool of Adamic naming or for inscribing commandments in stone; it does not reveal eternal truth. This belief and its concomitant linguistic tendencies toward fragmentation and emphasis on the verb rather than the noun find partial support in the work of two New Englanders, Emerson and Noah Webster. In her fifth letter to Higginson, the poet claims "[I] never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person—" (L 271). Like every poet Dickinson helps herself to colors, but the mix is unmistakably her own.

The Language of the Bible

To be familiar with the Bible was as unquestioned a part of nineteenth-century New England life as eating, and in some minds as necessary a part. The Bible was a primary text in schools, including Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson studied, respectively, from the ages of 9 through 16 and for ten months of her seventeenth year (two terms). Written into the Academy by-laws was the stipulation that "the instructors should be persons of good moral character … firmly established in the faith of the Christian religion, the doctrines and duties of which they shall inculcate as well by example as precept … The Preceptor shall open and close the school each day with prayer. All the students shall uniformly attend upon the public worship of God on the sabbath."2 Mount Holyoke prided itself on its piety and its conversion of non-believers, and the Bible heads the list of textbooks circulated by its principal (Life II, 362, n. 19). Thus Dickinson was under considerable pressure to convert while at Mount Holyoke, and this caused her some concern. There were other students who, like her, refused to "give up and become a Christian" (L 23), but she felt herself to be in the erring minority.3 Waves of religious revivalism swept New England and Amherst during Dickinson's girlhood and youth, and all her family and close friends eventually joined the church. Scripture was common idiom among them. At the age of 14, for example, in a playful letter informing her friend Abiah Root that she is not at school this term and is about to learn to make bread, Dickinson writes (L 8; September 1845):

So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, salaratus, etc., with a deal of grace. I advise you if you don't know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch. I think I could keep house very comfortably if I knew how to cook. But as long as I don't, my knowledge of housekeeping is about of as much use as faith without works, which you know we are told is dead. Excuse my quoting from the Scripture, dear Abiah, for it was so handy in this case I couldn't get along very well without it.

Writers of popular and scholarly literature also apparently "couldn't get along very well without" quoting or paraphrasing the always "handy" Bible. For cultural and familial reasons, then, as well as for her own spiritual and aesthetic ones, Dickinson knew her Bible well.

Although critics frequently refer to the Bible as Dickinson's primary literary source, discussion has focused on her use of particular biblical passages, ideas, and myths. Even Johnson's extreme claim that the poet's "words and phrases … are absorbed from the Bible" and "have passed through the alembic of the King James version of biblical utterance" retreats at once to note which books the poet quotes most frequently.4 Yet the stylistic correspondences of Dickinson's language to the Bible's are easily isolated and identified.

The language of the Bible is characteristically conjunctive, highly economical, and often organized in parallel sets or binary pairs, variously thematic, syntactic, and lexical. James Kugel describes the biblical sentence as "highly parallelistic … usually consisting of two clauses, each clause stripped to a minimum of three or four major words."5 For example, the following lines from Dickinson's favorite gospel author move in terse, heavily conjunctive syntax organized in repeating sequences and pairs:

And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. (Matthew 13:14-16)6

The passage begins with balanced pairs of affirmation and denial: ye shall hear and not understand, and shall see and not perceive. The sequence then becomes longer, at first through plain addition of evidence: hearts are gross, and ears are dull, and eyes are closed. The ands here are symmetrical; the order of the phrases may be changed without altering the meaning of any unit. In the clause beginning "lest at any time they should …" the first and (linking see with hear) is simply conjunctive, but the sequence then becomes asymmetrical and misleadingly simple: the ands preceding understand and heal substitute for what should logically be a subordinating conjunction or conjunctive phrase. In rough paraphrase, the sentence might run: "this people's heart, ears, and eyes are closed lest they should see and hear, which would lead them to understand, and which would make it possible that I heal them." The work of the reader in following this sentence consists in filling in the blanks created by these ands. To interpret "and I should heal them," the reader must construct a phrase to replace and. Particularly in "and I should heal them," and is more disjunctive than conjunctive; it does not belong in the same sequence as "see … and hear … and understand." Because the parallel sequence of verbs allows the repeated subject (they) to be omitted, "should heal" appears parallel to "should understand" and the other verbs preceding it; however, "heal" has a different agent of action (they see, I heal). The unexpected and syntactically disguised move from they to I creates a masterful rhetorical effect: Jesus' healing seems as inevitable a result of opening one's eyes as actual seeing is.

The conjunctive parataxis of this passage is complex in its intent and effect.7 It creates suspense and builds to a surprising but apparently inevitable climax—the perfect combination for representing the simple effectiveness of God's grace if you but "see and hear" it. At its conclusion the passage returns to what Kugel calls the most characteristic biblical mode, the parallel double clause, here repeated so that its figure is doubled twice: in the deleted repetition "but blessed are your eyes … and [blessed are] your ears …" and within each clause: "your eyes, for they see … your ears, for they hear …" The extreme compression of Dickinson's poems and that of biblical text are strikingly similar. In both cases the compression stems from frequent use of ellipsis, parallel and short syntactic structures linked paratactically or by simple conjunction, and apposition.

Compact and conjunctive or paratactic syntax occurs in biblical passages less artful than the one just quoted. In Genesis, for example, the story of Babel begins:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-4)

At the conclusion of a psalm from which Dickinson quotes in a letter, we find:

Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:13-14)

First Corinthians contains the more extreme but not atypical passage:

Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's. (I Corinthians 3:21-23)

In each of these passages there is a rhythmical sameness of tone. Sentences or clauses are short, and connections between them are coordinate rather than subordinate, the most frequently used being and. Often there is no linking conjunction or adverb, which causes a momentary lapse in the reader's progress forward. In the lines "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me," for example, the antecedent for "them" is not immediately clear, nor is the role fearfully ascribed to sins in the servant's life. "Dominion" in the second clause thematically echoes the opening clause's possessive "thy servant" to mark the difference between welcome and unwelcome servitude. But the two are not given equal syntactic weight: God's dominion is presumed and receives merely the possessive "thy"; sin's dominion is feared and can only with God's help be avoided. Linking the sequence of pleas "Keep back thy servant … let them not" is the unarticulated assumption that God controls all, but also that any contact with "presumptuous sins" would give them "dominion" over even God's servant. The second clause explains why the plea of the first clause is necessary. As in so many of Dickinson's poems, the logical connecting work of the syntax is left to the reader and is only clear on repeated readings.

Kugel, too, concludes that the point of biblical parallelism is to make the reader discover the connection between "two apparently unrelated parallel utterances."8 "A is so and B is so" or "A is so and B is not" will make sense as a complete statement only when we understand A and B in relation to each other. We see the similarity between the Bible's and Dickinson's suggestive use of paratactic juxtaposition most clearly in comparing its proverbs to her aphorisms. For example, the proverb "A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:1) may be interpreted multiply. The reader must imagine and order the array of possible relations between its halves, between ointment and birth, and a good name and death. Remember the similar gap between subjects at the end of Dickinson's poem "He fumbles at your Soul": "Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt / That scalps your naked Soul—/ When Winds take Forests in their Paws—/ The Universe—is still—." Like the thematic lapses created by parataxis in Dickinson's poems, the blank space (or the space filled with a coordinate conjunction) in biblical texts becomes a focal point of meaning; the text is transparent only when a sentence or clause is isolated, and then the transparency is misleading. The Bible's word, like the New Testament's Word incarnate, carries the greatest meaning when it links apparently discontinuous or separate realms: the literal and the figurative, the personal and the universal, earth and heaven.

Dickinson uses parataxis, repeated conjunctions, and parallel syntax less frequently than the Bible does. Even poems as markedly paratactic and conjunctive, respectively, as "It was not Death" and "My Life had stood" appear sparing in their juxtapositions in comparison with the biblical passages just quoted. Recall the opening lines of the former poem:

It was not Death, for I stood up, And all the Dead, lie down— It was not Night, for all the Bells Put out their Tongues, for Noon. It was not Frost, for on my Flesh I felt Siroccos—crawl— Nor Fire—for just my Marble feet Could keep a Chancel, cool— And yet, it tasted, like them all …(510)

In these lines we hear biblical sparseness and see an overlapping balanced effect in the repeated "It was not … for" clauses and in the qualifying coordinate clauses "for I … And all …" of lines I and 2. Dickinson, however, repeats few besides function words, and her syntax is generally less repetitive than the Bible's: here she repeats the initial structure of balancing clauses only in the first two stanzas, and with considerable variation.9

In both biblical prose and Dickinson's verse, the short clauses and rapid progression from one unit to the next give a feeling of inevitability to the narrative's progression. The paratactic linking of phrases "And now we roam … And now we hunt … And do I smile" of "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun," like Paul's "All is yours, and ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's," collapses hierarchies of importance and precedence at the same time that it builds toward a climax. Individually every action or conclusion—like every soul or "sparrow" in New Testament theology—holds equal weight, yet all gain their importance from their existence within the whole, be it Dickinson's poem or the Christian God. When the linked actions form a sequence, it seems equally inevitable. In a poem about what the heart asks, Dickinson's speaker seems to move from childhood to old age, although the process of decreasing demands could as easily happen in a single night as in the course of a lifetime:

The Heart asks Pleasure—first— And then—Excuse from Pain— And then—those little Anodynes That deaden suffering— And then—to go to sleep— And then—if it should be The will of it's Inquisitor The privilege to die—(536)

Regardless of which time scheme is primary, the sequence (combined with the poem's opening definite article—The Heart) implies that no heart continues to ask for pleasure and that every heart will eventually have received enough pain to desire its own death. Seventeenth-Century Stylists

Compression, (disjunctively) conjunctive syntax, and parallelism characterize other modern writing besides Dickinson's—much of it, like hers, influenced by biblical style. Morris Croll describes "baroque" or early to mid-seventeenth-century prose in terms easily convertible to both Dickinson's and the Bible's language. The similarities have a logical basis on both sides: Montaigne, Burton, Pascal, Sir Thomas Browne—Croll's major examples of baroque stylists—were extremely familiar with the Bible and biblical texts, and Browne and George Herbert were among Dickinson's favorite writers. In fact, the resemblance between Dickinson's and Herbert's poetry was so strong that Millicent Todd Bingham published two stanzas of his "Matin Hymn" that Dickinson had copied out and stored with her verses as Dickinson's own.10 The seventeenth-century sentence, Croll tells us, is "exploded." It uses either loose coordinating conjunctions, or has "no syntactic connectives … In fact, it has the appearance of having been disrupted by an explosion within" (209). In both its "loose" and "curt" forms, this style portrays "not a thought, but a mind thinking" (210); the sentence's movement is spiral, not "logical" or straight. Rather than adopting the Bible's balanced parallelism, this style tends to be asymmetrical, to break a parallelism as soon as it has been established: " … out of the struggle between a fixed pattern and an energetic forward movement" the baroque style creates its "strong and expressive disproportions" (226).

According to Croll, "curt" baroque prose tends to begin with a complete statement of its idea, much like a proverb in style and tone; the rest of the paragraph or section (or poem) provides new apprehensions or varying imaginative aspects of that logically exhaustive initial statement. Abrupt changes in subject and changes from one mode or style to another (from literal to metaphoric, or from concrete to abstract form) characterize the following imaginative exploration of the kernel idea. Croll gives an example from Browne's Religio Medici (which Dickinson owned):

To see ourselves again, we need not look for Plato's year: every man is not only himself; there have been many Diogenes, and as many Timons, though but few of that name; men are lived over again; the world is now as it was in ages past; there was none then, but there hath been some one since, that parallels him, and is, as it were, his revived self. (218)

Browne's prose anticipates, and Croll's anatomy describes, the progress of several Dickinson poems: first the aphoristic statement of the theme, then brief varying elaborations of its idea. "Essential Oils—are wrung" announces its theme immediately. Other poems begin: "Life—is what we make it" (698); "Impossibility, like Wine / Exhilarates the Man / Who tastes it; …" (838); "Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object's loss—" (1071); "To disappear enhances" (1209); "The Rat is the concisest Tenant" (1356). An even more extreme example of curt baroque prose is Herbert's "Prayer, I," which consists of numerous fragmentary representations of prayer, beginning:

Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age, God's breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase …

and ending:

Church-bells beyond the stars heart, the soul's blood, The land of spices, something understood.

The poem contains no complete predicate. Much of Dickinson's poetry, like baroque poetry and prose, moves by a sequence of "'points' and paradoxes reveal[ing] the energy of a single apprehension in the writer's mind" (218-219).

"Loose" baroque style, usually intermingled with the "curt" style, differs only in its greater use of participais and subordinate conjunctions, according to Croll. Its subordinate conjunctions, however, are used so loosely as to have the effect of coordinate conjunctions: individual clauses maintain great autonomy, and there is no tightly logical or single means of advance from one member to the next. Look, for example, at the Herbert stanzas that Dickinson copied out (stanzas 2 and 3 of Herbert's "Matin Hymn"):

My God, what is a heart? Silver, or gold, or precious stone, Or star, or rainbow, or a part Of all these things, or all of them in one? My God, what is a heart, That thou shouldst it so eye, and woo, Pouring upon it all thy art, As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?

Although the second of these stanzas is considerably less paratactic than the first, its connectives remain loose. "That" refers back to the preceding (repeated) question "What is a heart," and thus carries the weight of the whole preceding stanza. Eye, woo, and pour (thy art) may present the same action of God with increasing specificity, or "pouring …" may be a less direct, more general action, as its less active (participal) form suggests. Herbert's descriptions of God's actions overlap one another, as do his speculations about the substance of the heart in the previous stanza. Each embedded or branching clause repeats part of a previous idea and leads in a new direction; the progress of the sentence continues to seem spontaneous and to offer multiple directions for interpretation.

Because Dickinson's poetic mode anticipates that of twentieth-century poets, particularly the Modernists with their revived interest in the metaphysical poets, her poetry sounds less strange to the twentieth-century ear than it did to her century's. A glance at Longfellow's verse, which Dickinson greatly admired and referred to frequently, illuminates the gulf she created between her own and her contemporaries' work. This does not mean there were no similarities between her poetry and, for example, Longfellow's; like Dickinson, Longfellow experimented with rhyme, meter, and the rhythms and diction of speech. In "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" his language is colloquial: he uses relatively simple syntax, leaves sentences incomplete, and uses frequent exclamations and colloquial phrases ("all this moving"). Yet the long lines, the repetitive, highly adjectival phrasing, the heavily right-branching parallel syntax, and the lack of metaphorical complexity give this poem an entirely different character from Dickinson's poetry. The first stanza runs:

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves, Close by the street of this fair seaport town, Silent beside the never-silent waves, At rest in all this moving up and down!

In "My Lost Youth" Longfellow writes in shorter, rhythmically and syntactically looser lines, but the contrast with Dickinson's economy and ellipsis is still striking. The last stanza of this poem follows:

And Deering's Woods are fresh and fair, And with joy that is almost pain My heart goes back to wander there, And among the dreams of the days that were, I find my lost youth again. And the strange and beautiful song, The groves are repeating it still: "A boy's will is the wind's will, And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

Longfellow's poems are readily accessible on the levels of narrative and intent as neither Herbert's nor Dickinson's are. His verse, and most nineteenth-century American verse, works through extension and repetition, whereas Dickinson's works through compression and juxtaposition.

The Hymns of Isaac Watts

From the Bible and from Herbert's poems and Browne's prose, Dickinson would be familiar with tersely conjunctive syntax, sentences that progress asymmetrically or through apposition and paradox, and paradoxical or cryptically metaphorical rather than extended logical developments of an idea. Closer to home, the psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts, as familiar to many New Englanders as the Bible itself, offered her these same characteristics in a meter she adopted for almost all her poems. Emily's mother, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, owned Watts' Hymns, and the family library housed copies of his Church Psalmody and Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Reverend Isaac Watts.11 Although the poet does not mention Watts by name, she was undoubtedly familiar with several of his hymns, and she quotes from one of them.12 Her use of hymn meter (often called the common meter) for all but a few metrically experimental poems is widely attributed to her reading, and singing, of Watts.

In addition to being part of the common New England vocabulary of rhythm and verse, Watts may have held special attraction for Dickinson because of his frequent use of irregular rhymes and harsh-sounding phrases (usually involving vocabulary considered neither poetic nor religious), and because of the extraordinary variety of sounds and themes he used within a simple rhythmical frame.13 Watts's hymn 632, for example, uses a common conjunctive parallelism and irregular rhyme in stanza 5:

And must my body faint and die? And must this soul remove? O, for some guardian angel nigh, To bear it safe above!

Watts rhymes men with vain, fell with miracle, haste with test, throne with down (hymns 347, 438, 632, 648), or, in hymn 352 alone, lies with ice, stood with God, sea with away. In lines unusually vivid and metaphorical, Watts's hymn 630 uses the polysyllabic "abominable" with an art anticipating Dickinson's. It begins: "My thoughts on awful subjects roll, / Damnation and the dead," then recounts the "horrors" a "guilty soul" imagines on her deathbed:

Then, swift and dreadful, she descends Down to the fiery coast, Among abominable fiends, Herself a frighted ghost. There endless crowds of sinners lie, And darkness makes their chains; Tortured with keen despair, they cry, Yet wait for fiercer pains.

A darkness so tangible it "makes" chains; a soul in herself "dreadful" or in "dreadful" flight; sinners keenly despairing "Yet" waiting for "fiercer pains": these images and ambiguities would appeal to Dickinson's imagination.

Dickinson's own rhythms, loose rhymes, and abbreviated (therefore often cryptic) metaphors of description sound less unusual when placed beside Watts's hymns than when compared with the work of her contemporaries. Listen, for example, to the similarities in meter, rhyme, use of polysyllables to fill a line (her "possibility" and "Cordiality," like Watts's "abominable"), and vivid substantiation of the insubstantial between Watts and Dickinson in a poem she writes on the soul's near escape from death:

That after Horror—that 'twas us— That passed the mouldering Pier—

Just as the Granite Crumb let go— Our Savior, by a Hair— A second more, had dropped too deep For Fisherman to plumb— The very profile of the Thought Puts Recollection numb— The possibility—to pass Without a Moment's Bell— Into Conjecture's presence— Is like a Face of Steel— That suddenly looks into our's With a metallic grin— The Cordiality of Death— Who drills his Welcome in—(286)

Like Watts, Dickinson uses common meter here; lines coincide with clause or phrase boundaries, and stanzas form complete syntactic and metaphorical units; abstractions gain concrete properties (his darkness forms chains; her thought has a profile); and rhyme is consistent but not perfect (note her Pier with Hair, Bell with Steel). Dickinson's poem compacts more metaphors, and her primary metaphor for the soul's meeting with death is far more chilling than Watts's, but her familiarity with his dramatic and loosely irregular verse may have cleared a way for Dickinson to her own extraordinary poems.

The American Plain Style

In a still broader sense of influence, the American idiom itself, in both its literary and daily forms, may have contributed to Dickinson's use of a style that is biblical in origin.14 By the mid-nineteenth century Puritan "plain style" had become the language of self-expression, the trusted idiom in America, although—or perhaps because—it had lost its bolstering doctrinal and political contexts. According to Perry Miller's "An American Language," the plain style's demand that one speak from personal knowledge and as comprehensibly as possible made it the natural mode of discourse for a people living "in the wilderness" and, by the late eighteenth century, attempting to form a democracy.15 All American writers, he claims, have had to deal with the consequences of this wholesale adoption of the principles and techniques of plain style (214). Because of its pervasiveness, Dickinson would inevitably have used language to some extent within its dictates. For epistemological reasons also, Dickinson may have felt some affinity for this style. Miller describes the plain style as inherently "defiant"—a style that both proclaims authority for the word and places the word's authority in individuals' articulate examinations of the truth; the style encourages practical discourse on theoretical or spiritual truths. Hence, it can as easily be turned against the idea of an authoritative God as it can be used to support that idea. Authority of language lies with the "plainest" (that is, apparently most artless yet still most commanding) speaker. The Puritans kept the style's implicit defiance in check by subordinating their word to God's Word; the latter was the law which theirs attempted to interpret and reflect. Emerson, Miller claims, partially maintained this check on defiance through his romantic belief in Nature as the origin of language, while Thoreau released the defiance of this style in his prose, "glory[ing] in his participation in the community of sin" (226).

More covertly than Thoreau, Dickinson does the same. Her very disguise of defiance, however, may also stem in part from inherent characteristics of the plain style, which demands the simplicity reflected in its name but paradoxically also a kind of reticence that may prevent its complete message from being articulated. Ideally, the plain speaker "convey[s] the emphasis, the hesitancies, the searchings of language as it is spoken" (232); plainness lies in the apparent artlessness of the speaker's or writer's use of the word. Partly as a consequence, writers in the plain style leave much unsaid, and they claim that their discourse says even less than it does. Using words sparingly leaves much to implication, and making modest claims for a text may disguise the authority its author in fact feels. Thus the plain style frequently underplays its own importance and seriousness;16 even when it most anarchically expresses the perception of the individual, it maintains the guise of saying little, and that only matter-of-factly. Hence, while speaking "plain" truth, an individual may confound every doctrine that the Puritans held true and believed the plain style must express. As Miller puts it: "The forthright method [plain style] proved to be … the most subversive power that the wicked could invoke against those generalities it had, long ago, been designed to protect" (220). Through reticence, indirection, and disguised claims for the authority of her word, Dickinson manipulates characteristics of the plain use of language in poetry that contradict Puritan convictions about the individual's relation to God and His Word. The style that affirms God's truth for the Puritans, and denies that God's power is the only good (while still celebrating it) for Thoreau, becomes ironic with Dickinson: while appearing to affirm or naively question, she denies the trustworthiness of any superhuman power.

Although biblical style, particularly in its King James translation, has been widely influential, the Bible has influenced ideas of language at least as profoundly as it has actual language use. In the Bible, language is authority: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light" (Genesis 1:3); or as John redescribes this moment: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Adam's name giving is a second creation; he brings into the human world of language what God's Word has made. For Moses, the word is law to be preserved in stone. Language in all these cases is transparent; it has an immediate relation to things and principles and reflects their essential nature. By knowing the proper names, one may know the world. For American Puritans, this idea of language led to the belief that an individual's power to articulate depended on his or her spiritual condition. Those who had been converted were expected to manifest their condition of grace and to demonstrate their obedience to God through the quality of their understanding as represented in their use of words. What one knew one could, and must, express.

This notion of language depended on the inherent "truth" of the word; no word could be ambiguous or ironic and still manifest the essential truth of God. By the same logic, lying—that is, abusing the word by distorting or obscuring its meaning—diminished a person's ability to know the world and, through it, God. Hence, lying was a grave sin. William Ames preached that "the frequent use of obscene speeches seemeth to be more hurtful to piety, than the simple act of fornication," while proper or "plainly" eloquent speech ideally would be so powerful "that an unbeliever comming into the Congregation of the faithful … ought to be affected, and as it were digged through with the very hearing of the Word, that he may give glory to God."17 According to this philosophy, the most economical style is also the most efficacious. Regardless of the speaker's immediate audience, all language is directed ultimately to God, and "God's Altar needs not our pollishings," as the compilers of the 1639 preface to the Bay Psalm Book proclaim. Flourishes at worst confuse meaning, but even at best they hinder a statement's force: "The efficacy of the Holy Spirit doth more clearly appeare in a naked simplicity of words, then in elegance and neatness … So much affectation as appeares, so much efficacy and authority is lost."18 Authority and utility are the twin supports of this system.

The idea that language should adequately define and name things had a broad secular base as well in nineteenth-century America. In his essays "On Candor" and "On Language," James Fenimore Cooper lists an increasing lack of directness in expression as one of the greatest flaws of American English.19 Fearful of the vulgarizing effect of democracy even while he extols its virtues, Cooper laments that Americans pervert the significance of words by using them inappropriately and inexactly. The original meaning of a word is its proper meaning; to transfer its use to a different context or to use it more broadly constitutes a misuse of the word, not to mention a "misapprehension of the real circumstances under which we live" (112). Believing that a word may be misused and thus cause a "misapprehension of the real circumstances" of life presupposes that the proper use of language leads to accurate or proper apprehension of the world. Language delineates and labels the facts of nature. The word Cooper chooses as an example reveals the social roots of his anxiety about language change: the broadening misuse of the word "gentleman" does not make a tramp into a gentleman, he insists; it only weakens the proper meaning of the word and confuses the "natural" distinctions between types of men. Without saying so explicitly, and like the Puritans, Cooper would have language be unironical, immediately and unambiguously connected to the equally "plain" facts of the world.

It is in her attitude toward language and toward communication itself as much as in her characteristic manipulations of the word that Dickinson differs from her contemporaries and predecessors who wrote in plain style. Like them, she emphasizes the bare force of the word, eschewing elaborate syntax, modifiers, and extended conceits. Like them, she tends to stress the word's direct mediation between the individual and the world (for them, God). Like them, but to an unusual extreme, she makes small claims for her writing: her poems are "a letter to the World"; she is often a girl, or (like) a daisy, bird, spider, or gnat. Even when she has volcanic power, she generally appears harmless and unimportant: "A meditative spot—/ An acre for a Bird to choose / Would be the General thought—" (1677). Dickinson, however, senses a different need for both plainness and reticence from those who believe in a natural or divine law of language. The word has two faces for her. Its effect may be epiphanic and it may come to her as a "gift," revealing "That portion of the Vision" she could not find without the help of "Cherubim" (1126). This is the language of poetry, of pure communication, "Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine" (1452), or a "word of Gold" (430). At other times the word is all but meaningless—an "Opinion" (797), an empty term. In a letter to Bowles she writes: "The old words are numb—and there a'nt any new ones—Brooks—are useless—in Freshettime—" (L 252). Her trick as poet is to make the old words new. To do this, she trusts "Philology," not God or Nature, and when she succeeds in doing this she feels that she has been lucky.

To Dickinson's mind, success in speaking plainly, in creating a word "that breathes" (1651), does not prove spiritual salvation or make her a candidate for fame, partly because her sense of moral superiority depends on overthrowing the notion that God or the world can save her. The economical use of the words of ordinary life gives language its power. Speaking indirectly or subversively disguises the poet's usurpation of moral judgment from divine or human law, and thus saves her to speak again. As Perry Miller suggests, in Dickinson's poetry the pull between plainness and reticence subverts the whole idea of plainness. Because her meanings are not plain, they cannot be expressed plainly despite her use of simple words; her plainest speech is that of indirection.

As this conception of language implies, for Dickinson there is no stable relation between spiritual truth, the facts of existence, and the terms of language. Names are not adequate to things, and the function of language is not primarily to name. Things are perceived and understood through their relations to the rest of the world and by the process of cumulative, even contradictory, definition rather than by categorization or labeling. Dickinson has greater affinity with the lexicographer, the scientist of language seeking to clarify each word's various meanings, than she does with the Romantic Ur-poet Adam. Her language stresses the relation between object and its effects or relations in an active world; meaning, for her, is not fixed by rules or even by her own previous perception of the world. The principles of Dickinson's world do not have to do with immutable properties and distinctions.

Dickinson manifests her belief in the flux or instability of relationship in the narratives of her poems more obviously than in her use of language. For example, the figures of her poems often change positions relative to each other, or prove to be undifferentiable rather than separate identities. In "The Moon is distant from the Sea," first "She" is the moon and "He" the water, then she becomes "the distant Sea—" and his are the ordering "Amber Hands—" of light (429); the "single Hound" attending the Soul proves to be "It's own identity." (822); in an early poem, she and her playmate Tim turn out to be "I—'Tim'—and—Me!" (196). In a late poem, desired object, self, and "Messenger" are indistinguishable in both their presence and their absence; in a mockery of simplicity, all have the same name:

We send the Wave to find the Wave— An Errand so divine, The Messenger enamored too, Forgetting to return, We make the wise distinction still, Soever made in vain, The sagest time to dam the sea is when the sea is gone—(1604)

Although this poem may be read as an elaboration of a truism—that one must give to receive, or that some losses cannot be prevented—it also ironically suggests that distinguishing present and absent sea (loved "Wave" from our own) is "vain." The "wise distinction" persists in failing to recognize the absurdity of damming what is not there and cannot be kept anyway. We attempt to conserve only what we have already lost.

Similarly, in "The Sea said 'Come' to the Brook" (1210), the grown Brook takes the same form and title as the Sea that wanted to keep it small, as if to prove that the existence of one sea does not prevent the growth of innumerable physically indistinguishable others. In the last stanza it is not immediately clear which "Sea" is which:20

The Sea said "Go" to the Sea— The Sea said "I am he You cherished"—"Learned Waters— Wisdom is stale—to Me"

In countless other poems, unspecified and multiply referential "it" or "this" is as meaningful a subject for speculation as any clearly delineated event or object. Metaphor serves as the primary tool of definition and explanation because it allows for the greatest flexibility in its reference to fact.

Emerson's Theories of Language

To the extent that language does reflect the world for Dickinson, her conception of language is closer to Emerson's than to the Puritans'. The Amherst poet was familiar with the Concord poet's works from at least 1850 on. In that year, she received "a beautiful copy" of Emerson's 1847 Poems (L 30). In 1857 Emerson lectured in Amherst, eating and sleeping at the Evergreens, where Emily may have joined Austin and Sue in entertaining him. She told Sue that he seemed "as if he had come from where dreams are born" (Life II, 468). In 1876 the poet gave Mrs. Higginson a copy of Representative Men—"a little Granite Book you can lean upon" (L 481). She also quotes or paraphrases five of Emerson's poems in her letters and poems, most notably his "Bacchus" in her "I taste a liquor never brewed" (214) and "The Snow Storm" in her "It sifts from Leaden Sieves" (311).21

Emerson writes at length of language as an ideal system of meaning in his essays "Nature" and "The Poet." His use of language in his own prose, however, contradicts his theories. In theory, Emerson's notion of language stems from Puritan ideas of the word as an extension of the Oversoul, or God. For him, as for the Puritans, language in its pristine or original state is transparent: "Words are signs of natural facts."22 Similarly, for Emerson, speech that derives from an accurate perception of nature "is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God" (Works I, 36). In its ideal form, language translates and interprets spiritual truths as for the Puritans, but now through the mediation of nature. Because of this mediation, at its plainest and most authoritative language is "picturesque"; it is "poetry." Words stand for (name, signify) facts of nature, which are in turn "emblematic" of spiritual facts. Language, then, is both referential (transparently reflective of nature) and metaphorical. Human language derives from nature, which is in turn "the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual" (Works I, 66). Ideally there would be a one-to-one correspondence between the facts of nature, the words of speech, and the facts of the spirit; that is, human language would exactly reproduce the language of the universe.

Because of its base in nature, according to Emerson, language is also both fixed or universal and constantly undergoing change. The laws of the spirit or Oversoul, the ultimate referent of language, do not change, but their forms in nature may. Natural objects "furnish man with the dictionary and grammar of his municipal speech" (Works I, 37); when these objects are altered so are the meanings of our language. Each age requires its own interpreter or poet to keep language true to nature (and to read nature's new forms), but each interpreter expresses the same truths, albeit in different forms. Because the laws of nature are fixed, the primary act of language making is naming and the principle word is the noun. Emerson traces the development of language through that of the individual: "Children and savages use only nouns or names of things, which they convert into verbs and apply to analogous mental acts"—a necessary stage in language making, he implies, but a departure from language as pure poetry (Works I, 32). Verbs provide, as it were, the transitional form in the desired transformation of language from directly referential (noun to fact) to symbolic (noun to spiritual fact). Language translates perceived nature into human speech and thereby assists in the transformation of nature into spirit. It is not itself stable, but it leads from the world of nameable things to the sphere of immutable spirit.

Emerson never develops the implications of this philosophy for the use of a particular syntax or parts of speech. Were he to do so, the poet or premier language user would logically be Adamic, a pronouncer of names. The ceaseless contradictions and qualifications of Emerson's prose, however, suggest otherwise. Although he preaches about natural laws, he sees nothing but change, and he bases all knowledge and all language on what may be seen (the inner eye interpreting through the outer). While at one minute in "Self-Reliance" he commandingly and absolutely propounds: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string" or "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," in the next he questions: "Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?" (Works I, 47, 50). In a longer passage from the same essay, Emerson characteristically combines highly embedded syntax replete with parallel modifiers and self-referring phrases with paratactically juxtaposed aphorisms as pithy as any that Dickinson coins: "In this pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical though I mean it not and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills" (Works I, 58). Emerson's essays move by associative elaboration of a central idea—often first presented in metaphorical form—not by formal, logical stages or steps. He uses language as if its meaning were less certain or clear than he describes it as being.

Certainly Dickinson recreates the full force of Emerson's perception that all nature, and thus all language, is in constant "flux" in her definition of nouns. Recall, for example, her use of repeated verbs and restrictive clauses in her definition poems: "Revolution is the Pod / Systems rattle from / When the Winds of Will are stirred" (1082); "Escape" is "the Basket / In which the Heart is caught / When down some awful Battlement / The rest of Life is dropt—" (1347); or "Bloom—is Result—" of a process requiring some thing or someone "To pack the Bud—oppose the Worm—/ Obtain it's right of Dew—/ Adjust the Heat—elude the Wind—/ Escape the prowling Bee / [and] Great Nature not to disappoint …" (1058). To repeat earlier and more extreme examples, the love "diviner" than that "a Life can show Below" can only be defined by its cumulative acts and effects. In this poem's final stanza, the subject-noun is almost lost in the barrage of its verbs:

'Tis this—invites—appalls—endows— Flits—glimmers—proves—dissolves— Returns—suggests—convicts—enchants— Then—flings in Paradise—(673)

Similarly, Dickinson defines the nominalized verb "saved" by its relation to the act or art of saving: "The Province of the Saved / Should be the Art—To save—" (539). An abstraction, like an object, stems from or stimulates action, and hence it can be known. Ernest Fenollosa, a later pupil of Emerson's, articulates the philosophy that seems to underlie Dickinson's definitions: "Fancy picking up a man and telling him that he is a noun, a dead thing rather than a bundle of functions! A 'part of speech' is what it does … one part of speech acts for another … 'Farmer' and 'rice' are mere hard terms which define the extremes of the pounding. But in themselves, apart from this sentence-function, they are naturally verbs. The farmer is one who tills the ground, and the rice is a plant which grows in a special way … a noun is originally 'that which does something,' that which performs the verbal action."23 By Fenollosa's logic, land apart from their "sentence-function," Dickinson's action-oriented nouns are "naturally verbs."

Dickinson's poems typically conceptualize action instead of presenting it, or they make the action itself conceptual, epistemological. Even in poems about action or change in nature ("A Route of Evanescence" or "Further in Summer than the Birds"), the poet emphasizes process, causality, and relationship more than temporal acts; the flight of her hummingbird receives its effect from reflected light and the bush it touches. The poem is full of action, but there is only one verb (Adjusts):

A Route of Evanescence With a revolving Wheel— A Resonance of Emerald— A Rush of Cochineal— And every Blossom on the Bush Adjusts it's tumbled Head— The mail from Tunis, probably, An easy Morning's Ride—(1463)

Revolving, Resonance, Rush, tumbled, and Ride refer to aspects of the bird's movement but do not present it. The poet's use of nouns and participial adjectives suggests that the bird flies so fast and so effortlessly that the act itself cannot be perceived; we know the act by what it touches and by what we can surmise ("the mail from Tunis").

For Emerson, the whole end of nature is to be interpreted; things are "characters" to be read, and "every object rightly seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul"; language and the world and language and the soul are one (Words I, 31, 36, 41). For Dickinson, nature is not transparent and language is not an organic adjunct (or reflected image) of its processes. We "consign" words to language instead of allegorically perceiving them in nature's great poem. As though in response to Emerson's maxim that "Words are signs of natural fact," Dickinson finds language's greatest power in abstraction, in what cannot be found in nature. "Dont you know that 'No' is the wildest word we consign to Language?" (L 562), she questions; and her "Essential Oils" of meaning are "wrung," "not expressed by Suns—alone—". To enliven language, this poet makes it less instead of more natural; she distorts grammar, inverts syntax, and represents words as produced or conventional units which she can reproduce for her own purposes. Powerful words are blades, swords, and distilled attar—things created by human civilization for human use. In their less powerful aspect, words are arbitrary labels and may be tossed aside: "If the Bird and the Farmer—deem it [a tree] a 'Pine'—/ The Opinion will do—for them—" (797).

Emerson expresses the idea that language is inadequate and primarily conventional (not organic) in the ceaseless reexaminations and shifting balances of his prose and in his numerous references to the fallen state of humanity and language in the contemporary world. Dickinson holds the same belief but does not find it a reason to despair. The impermanence of meaning and language liberates her to speak as she might not otherwise dare. Emerson's search for meaning is directed toward nature: his poet is always in part the scribe of what he sees. Dickinson's search most often occurs within "Philosophy" (1126, 1651), not nature. Her dictionary is her "companion," and she ranges freely in her explorations of meaning there.

Noah Webster and Lexicography

Dickinson may have found support for her semantic emphasis on the verb or change and for her belief in the constant changes of language in her family dictionary. Temperamentally and philosophically, she was suited to lexicography. Unlike understanding that stems from archetypes or symbols, lexical understanding works from context and always provides alternative shades or directions of meaning. Lexicography encouraged both Dickinson's scientific and her fanciful tendencies: speculating on the connections of a word's various definitions or possible etymologies might lead to the profound, or it might lead to the ludicrous.

Dickinson may also have felt a special affinity for the lexicographer Noah Webster. In opposition to almost all grammarians and philologists of his day, Webster was convinced that language stems etymologically from verbs, not from nouns. In an introductory essay to his 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster theorizes that the "ordinary sense" of all words in any language may be expressed by thirty or forty verbs and that these radical verbs originate as modifications of the primary sense "to move."24 These verbs are then modified into the "appropriate" or "customary" significations that we now recognize as entries in our modern dictionaries. The "principal radix" of a family of words may be a noun or an adjective instead of a verb (as just is the radix of justice and justly); that primary word, however, would always theoretically be traceable back to a verb (as Webster traces just back to "setting, erecting" and the adjective warm to Latin ferveo—"I boil"). Webster states in another essay: "Motion, action, is, beyond all controversy, the principal source of words."25

Given Dickinson's interest in language and in her dictionary (an 1844 reprint of Webster's 1841 edition), there can be little doubt that she read Webster's introductory essay. In 1862 she wrote Higginson that "for several years, my Lexicon—was my only companion—" (L 261), and she speaks in a poem of "Easing my famine / At my Lexicon—" (728). Even taking hyperbolic self-posing into account, we can assume that the young poet spent a lot of time reading her dictionary. A family connection between the Dickinsons and the Websters may also have encouraged her interest in the family dictionary. Webster lived in Amherst from 1812 to 1822 and served with the poet's grandfather on the first Board of Trustees for Amherst Academy; Emily Dickinson later attended the Academy with the lexicographer's granddaughter, Emily Fowler. Although she may not have been influenced by Webster's theory, Dickinson would at least have found scholarly support there for her own probably unarticulated interest in the verb's role in meaning.

Nineteenth-Century Women Writers

Dickinson was influenced in establishing the techniques of her style by writing which states or implies both that language is primarily an instrument of naming and that language primarily expresses the boundaries of motion, of interactive meaning. Although it is not the focus of this study, Dickinson's use of narrative is also an element of her style. The poet tends to tell a story in her poems, to present ideas or feeling through a plot. The Bible's use of parables—in fact, the Bible itself as an encyclopedia of stories—may have encouraged her propensity to write in tales. Her plots, however, resemble those of popular writers of the period, particularly women writers, suggesting that they may well have influenced this aspect of her style. Certainly Dickinson's most common plot closely resembles the base plot of several women writers.

The Dickinson family subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and Scribner's Monthly along with The Springfield Republican and two other newspapers—all of which published at least occasional current fiction, poetry, or literary criticism. Emily, Lavinia, Austin, Sue and their friends also bought books on a regular basis and exchanged them with one another. The poet's letters are full of references to what recently published story or book she is reading or that someone has recommended that she read. Although the most frequently repeated references are to authors famous at the time and now (Emerson, Longfellow, both the Brownings, Eliot, and so on), the poet also speaks highly of a number of American women writers, mostly less well known at present: among others, these include Helen Hunt Jackson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rebecca Harding Davis, Francis Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Marcella Bute Smedley. In a letter of her early twenties (L 85; 1852), for example, Dickinson writes Sue how "small" her "catalogue" of reading has been of late and then goes on:

I have just read three little books, not great, not thrilling—but sweet and true. "The Light in the Valley" [a memorial of Mary Elizabeth Stirling, who died a few months previously], "Only" [by Matilda Anne Mackarness] and A "House upon a Rock" [also by Mackarness]—I know you would love them all—yet they dont bewitch me any. There are no walks in the wood—no low and earnest voices, no moonlight, nor stolen love, but pure little lives, loving God, and their parents, and obeying the laws of the land; … I have the promise of "Alton Lock" [by Charles Kingsley]—a certain book, called "Olive," [by Dinah Maria Craik] and the "Head of a Family," [also by Craik] which was what Mattie named to you.

Dickinson's debt to British women authors as role models is much greater than her debt to Americans, but in terms of plot her response to the two groups is largely indistinguishable. Gilbert and Gubar attribute not only her primary romantic plot but also the forms of her daily life to Dickinson's familiarity with the plots of British and American women's novels and poetry: "The fictional shape Dickinson gave her life was a gothic and romantic one, not just (or even primarily) because of the family 'rhetoric' of exaggeration but because the gothic/romantic mode was so frequently employed by all the women writers whom this poet admired more than almost any other literary artists." In her poems, they argue, she articulates variously the details of the plot she has constructed for her reclusive and eccentric life.26

The most common plot of Dickinson's poems involves a speaker who is the victim of some monstrous power, usually ambiguously sexual or romantic and usually specifically male. Several poems involve courtship (about which the speaker is ambivalent). For example, death is a courteous gentleman who "kindly stopped for me—" (712) or "the supple Suitor / That wins at last—", bearing his bride away to "Kinsmen as divulgeless / As throngs of Down—" or, in another variant, "as responsive / As Porcelain." (1445). A bee and rose act out the drama of courtship in a number of poems; for example, in "A Bee his burnished Carriage / Drove boldly to a Rose—", she "received his visit / With frank tranquility" and then, as he flees, "Remained for her—of rapture / But the humility." (1339). Another poem (239) seems to give the withholding lover both feminine and (implicitly) masculine roles; in the middle of the poem, "Heaven" is first a seductress but then a Conjuror—a term usually reserved for male magicians:

Her teasing Purples—Afternoons— The credulous—decoy— Enamored—of the Conjuror— That spurned us—Yesterday!

Heaven teases without giving what she promises and, in what Dickinson usually makes the masculine role, spurns the already enamored. "I cannot live with You" (640), like any number of poems written to "you" or "him," rests on the same premise as "'Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" (239): relationship here is impossible (except in the cases where it is not desired, as with death) and so the speaker is left with "that White Sustenance—/ Despair—".

Haunted houses or ghosts appear in several poems, the most famous of which are well known: "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted," with its gothic chase through an "Abbey" and with "Assassin hid in our Apartment" (670); and "The Soul has Bandaged moments," where a "ghastly Fright come[s] up / And stop[s] to look at her—" (512). Ghosts appear as everything from "Eternity's Acquaintances" (892) to the "Emerald Ghost—" of a storm that cannot be shut out in "There came a Wind like a Bugle" (1593), and figures in these and other poems are frequently haunted.27 Dickinson once wrote to Higginson that "Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted" (L 459a). Gilbert and Gubar claim that this comment's "frank admission of dependence upon [gothic] metaphors … tells us that the self-hauntings of (female) gothic fiction are in Dickinson's view essential to (female) art."28 At the very least, the metaphor shows Dickinson's conscious and theatrical use of popular gothic and domestic metaphor.

In most of Dickinson's plots the speaker feels herself besieged or unjustly tormented. One might speculate, of course, that Dickinson writes of suitors, unrequited love, and goblins or specters because these are her primary day-to-day concerns, but this seems unlikely. What we know of her life suggests rather that these story elements are a literary coin she trades in to give her thoughts currency and drama. The poet's twisting and even mockery of the stock gothic plot in several poems (for example, where ghosts are not the "superior spectre" one need fear; 670) also suggest its distance from the larger concerns of her life. She does not live as a heroine and probably does not believe that heroines as such exist, but she knows how to dress her speakers, and to some extent her public self, in that garb.

In her study of nineteenth-century American women poets, Cheryl Walker accumulates evidence that the commonly held nineteenth-century stereotype of the poetess also provided material for Dickinson's themes and plots and may have contributed to the molding of her life (especially her reclusiveness, dressing in white, and repeated assertion of extreme sensitivity). Focusing on the expressions of feeling that the pose of poetess invites, Walker sees less irony in Dickinson's manipulation of that common plot than I do. The poet assumed a role in and out of her poems, Walker argues, partly for convenience, as protective camouflage, but partly because the role fit, and perhaps also because the paucity of roles for a woman poet left her relatively little choice: "Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the true feelings of these women poets from those dictated by the role they assumed to satisfy public expectations. For a woman like Dickinson the sense of difference from others, the intense feelings, were certainly real. But it is also important to remember that one's self-conception is determined in part by the social vocabulary of one's culture. Still, the poetess was more than a social norm. She was an accessible image for a literary self." According to Walker, Dickinson's frequent reference to or use in her poems of "intense feeling, the ambivalence toward power, the fascination with death, the forbidden lover and secret sorrow"—all major features of expression and plot in the "women's tradition" in poetry—mark her familiarity with this tradition if not its influence on her. Although her language itself (and thus ultimately the poetry) is at great variance from that of her contemporary female and male poets—Walker herself admits that the poet "certainly … ignored [this tradition's] stylistic conventions"—Dickinson's topics and sentiments are often indistinguishable from those of her sister poets.29

Judging by a contemporary writer's characterization of typical feminine and masculine styles, Dickinson shares more with the latter than with the former. Mary Abigail Dodge, whose sketches Dickinson almost certainly read in the Atlantic Monthly in the late 1850s and 1860s and who chose her pen name "Gail Hamilton" because it allowed her to write with a "sexually indeterminate pen," brags of her ability to keep her gender unknown by demonstrating her mastery of both masculine and feminine styles:

I inform you that I could easily deceive you, if I chose. There is about my serious style a vigor of thought, a comprehensiveness of view, a closeness of logic, and a terseness of diction, commonly supposed to pertain only to the stronger sex. Not wanting in a certain fanciful sprightliness which is the peculiar grace of woman, it possesses also, in large measure, that concentrativeness which is deemed the peculiar strength of man. Where an ordinary woman will leave the beaten track, wandering in a thousand little by-ways of her own,—flowery and beautiful, it is true, and leading her airy feet to "sunny spots of greenery" and the gleam of golden apples, but keeping her not less surely from the goal,—I march straight on, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, beguiled into no side-issues, discussing no collateral question, but with keen eye and strong hand aiming right at the heart of my theme. Judge thus of the stern severity of my virtue.30

When writing of women's digressiveness, Hamilton's prose becomes every bit as "flowery" and "airy" as that of the writers she describes. This sentence uses embedded and parallel descriptive clauses, repeated right-branching constructions, and a profusion of adjectives. The style of the "stronger sex," in contrast, is to the point, as typified by the first two and last sentences above. More than Hamilton, Dickinson writes with what might in her age be called a "masculine" "terseness of diction" and "concentrativeness." Although the speech of the poems may resemble women's more than men's speech, the poems' language does not for the most part resemble nineteenth-century women's written language, especially prose. Hamilton openly disproves the accuracy of her stereotypes of masculine and feminine writing by combining what she considers the best features of both in her own prose. Nonetheless, the stereotypes basically hold as descriptions of nineteenth-century prose. American women's writing did tend to be more adjectival, "flowery," and digressive than men's writing—although a twentieth-century reader of popular nineteenth-century men's writing might well describe it using the same adjectives. What Dickinson takes from this writing is its indirection (leaving the straight "beaten track" for a more ambiguous goal), its primary story elements, and its feeling—not its form.

The claims of influence on the work of any writer must be tenuous. My purpose here has not been to argue that Dickinson writes as she does because of her familiarity with the Bible, or with Emerson's writing and philosophy, or with Webster's theory of the origins of language, or because of any other sources. Rather, I present this … evidence as a way of reiterating that all language has a supporting context. The syntactic, structural, semantic, and narrative aspects of Dickinson's poems echo writers and texts the poet knew well. She did not manufacture her style out of thin air any more than she lifted it full blown from other writers' pages. Her seclusion from the world was not, in short, a seclusion from language. In delineating stylistic similarities, I have described some of the affinities between Dickinson and the writers who provide the closest models for her language use….


1 Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative), ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 75.

2 Frederick Tuckerman, Amherst Academy: A New England School of the Past (Amherst, Mass., 1926), 97.

3 Sewall refutes the myth that Dickinson was isolated socially and spiritually at Mount Holyoke because she did not convert (Life II, 362-364). It is also important to note in this age of greater religious variety that one could be a regular churchgoer and generally adhere to the principles of Christianity without being "a Christian." The poet's letters contain several references to sermons and ministers that she heard until she became completely reclusive in her early thirties.

4 Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955), 151.

5 James R. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), 300.

6 Dickinson alludes to the gospel of Matthew seventy-four times in her poems and letters, more than twice as often as to any other book of the Bible. Jack L. Capps, Emily Dickinson's Reading, 1836-1886 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), 40-41, 192.

7 One of the primary initial arguments of Mueller's The Native Tongue and the Word: Developments in English Prose Style 1380-1580 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) has to do with the complexity and effectiveness of a conjunctive and paratactic style. Mueller notes that the shift of subject (here from third to first person) occurs frequently in scripturalism and in spoken language; it also occurs frequently in Dickinson's poetry.

8 Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, 10.

9 There are more extreme examples of Dickinson's repetition, but they follow the same pattern of functional repetition and semantic variation. For example, in "Mine—by the Right of the White Election!" (528), six of the poem's nine lines begin "Mine—" and four begin "Mine—by the …" Like "It was not Death," this poem never identifies its subject, what the speaker insists is "Mine."

10 Morris Croll, "The Baroque Style in Prose," ed. John M. Wallace, in Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: Essays by Morris Croll (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), 207-237 (originally published in 1929). Subsequent citations of Croll in the text will be indicated by giving page numbers in parentheses. Croll speaks only of biblical prose, but Kugel argues at length that the lack of meter in Hebrew makes the Romance language distinction between poetry and prose meaningless. At its most "poetic," biblical language employs the greatest number of "heightening features" to create the greatest intensity (The Idea of Biblical Poetry, 85-86).

Dickinson wrote to Higginson: "For Prose [I have]—Mr Ruskin—Sir Thomas Browne—and the Revelations." "For Poets," she names only Keats and the Brownings (L 261). Millicent Todd Bingham and Mabel Loomis Todd published Herbert's stanzas as Dickinson's in the first edition of Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945).

11 James Davidson ("Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts," Boston Public Library Quarterly, 6, 1954, 141-149) mentions the former two books. Capps mentions only the latter, stating that it belonged to the poet's father (Emily Dickinson's Reading, 187). All three were enormously popular in the nineteenth century.

12 Watts concludes his hymn "There is a land of pure delight" (626) with the stanza: "Could we but climb where Moses stood, / And view the landscape o'er; / Not Jordan's stream, nor death's cold flood / Should fright us from the shore." Dickinson parodies this vision of heaven in "Where bells no more affright the morn" with her wish for a "town" (or "Heaven") where "very nimble Gentlemen" can no longer wake sleeping children. Her poem concludes: "Oh could we climb where Moses stood, / And view the Landscape o'er' / Not Father's bells—nor Factories, / Could scare us any more!" (112). Watts's hymn is in his Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1834).

13 According to Davidson, Watts's psalms and hymns were frequently smoothed out by editors because of this irregularity and harshness. Church Psalmody, however, one of the Watts books belonging to the Dickinsons, was virtually unchanged by editors ("Emily Dickinson and Isaac Watts," 143).

14 Mueller argues that modern English as a whole has been deeply influenced by scripturalism, primarily through translations of the Bible preceding the King James version (The Native Tongue and the Word). American adoption of some characteristics of biblical style seems to be more specific and more closely tied to biblical authority than were the earlier British borrowings from scripturalism.

15 Perry Miller, "An American Language," in Nature's Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), 208-240. Subsequent page references to this essay will appear in parentheses in the text.

16 Think of the inevitable opening apologia in Puritan writing, from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to the "foolish, broken, blemished Muse" that Anne Bradstreet claims for herself in her "Prologue."

17 William Ames was the most articulate proponent of the plain style. The passages quoted in the text are from his "Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (1643) and The Marrow of Sacred Divinity (1643) as cited respectively in Larzer Ziff's Puritanism in America (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 14, and Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1939), 301.

18 From Ames's Marrow of Sacred Divinity, quoted in Miller, "An American Language," 219.

19 In The American Democrat (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931; a reprint of the 1838 edition), 108-116.

20 Given the context of the poem, it must be the old Sea that says "Go" to the new or "Brook"-Sea. The Brook-Sea speaks last, addressing the older "Waters."

21 Capps, Emily Dickinson's Reading, 173-174.

22 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Complete Works, 12 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1883). This quote is taken from vol. I, 31. Subsequent quotations from Emerson will be cited in the text as Works, with volume and page number.

23 Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, ed. Ezra Pound (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1969), 20-21, 23; originally published in 1936.

24 "An Introductory Dissertation on the Origin, History and Connection of the Languages of Western Asia and Europe, with an Explanation of the Principles on which Language are Formed," ix-lxxi. It is possible that Webster's interest in etymological derivations in this essay and throughout his dictionary influenced Dickinson's similar interest, but there is no special reason to assume this connection. More likely, Webster's derivations provided empirical support for an interest and habit the poet had already developed on her own.

25 Webster, "State of English Philology," in A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (New York, 1843), 365.

26 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), 584.

27 See, for example, poems 75, 184, 274, 281, 311, 413, 670, 817, 1181, and 1400 for ghosts and 167, 195, 253, 472, 788, 841, 938, and 1004 for haunting.

28 Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, 585-586.

29 Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets in America, 1630-1900 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982), 88, 116, 87.

30 Mary Abigail Dodge, from "My Garden," Atlantic Monthly, 1862. Reprinted in Provisions: A Reader of Nineteenth-Century American Women, ed. Judith Fetterley (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985), 421-445.

Margaret Dickie (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6701

SOURCE: "Dickinson's Discontinuous Lyric Self," in American Literature, Vol. 60, No. 4, December, 1988, pp. 537-53.

[In the following essay, Dickie maintains that Dickinson's poems should be analyzed not as pieces of a narrative, but as lyric poems in which the qualities of brevity, repetition, and figuration are the most pertinent and the most telling. Dickie stresses that such an analysis reveals a sense of self that is "particular, discontinuous, limited, private, hidden," and that this conclusion challenges those reached by feminist and psychoanalytic narrative character analyses.]

It is the habit of our times to read poetry as if it were prose perhaps because recent strategies for reading derive from and are most easily applied to prose. Psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist models for reading all depend to one extent or another upon a plot, upon character, and upon extended development. When these models are applied to a form such as a lyric poem that is brief, repetitive, and figurative, they fit uneasily and most usefully only when the lyric form itself is neglected in favor of the narrative that can be derived from joining together a number of poems. It must be admitted that the brevity of the lyric poses an obstacle to a critical argument because it is equally difficult to make a compelling point on the basis of a single brief lyric and, for different reasons, to discuss a series of poems as one continuous work. Perhaps then what is needed is a critical argument that will start by noticing that the properties of the lyric—its brevity, its repetition, its figuration—obstruct readings that are determined by a socially limited understanding of the self or the subject, by a view of character as expressed in a cause and effect logic, by an insistence that the poet can be understood by certain representative attitudes. The lyric poem resists the totalizing ambition of such readings.

In trying to formulate a new model for reading the lyric poem, Emily Dickinson's poetry may be instructive especially because it has been given a recent and vigorous reading by American feminist critics who have been reading it for plot, character, and the extended argument of the work.1 For example, Alicia Ostriker has commented: "Dickinson genuinely despises publicity and power, prefers the private and powerless life—and the reverse is equally true. We may say the same about many of her poems in praise of deprivation: they reject what they commend, commend what they reject. Their delight, their strength derives from their doubleness" (p. 41). Power and deprivation are themes that interest Ostriker, issues central to feminist criticism; but Ostriker's own claims would suggest that they are not issues equally central or politically determined to Dickinson.

The brevity with which the lyric "I" is presented in Dickinson's poems should suggest that that "I" is not to be known in terms such as publicity and power that might define a character in a novel.2 The longer life of an individual in the novel, and especially in the nineteenth-century novel, tends inevitably toward steadfastness of character. Even an effort such as Edgar Allan Poe's to undermine the stalwartness of fictional characters by the use of unreliable narrators relies upon a consistency of representation that is foreign to the lyric "I." In a lyric poem, the "I" is known only in limited detail. For a lyric poet of consistent productivity such as Dickinson, this limitation is a deliberate choice of self-presentation, expressive of a particular sense of the self (of herself or a self) as shifting, changing, reforming. Such a self will be distorted in being described in terms appropriate for either a real-life or novelistic character.

But what terms can be used then? Brevity, repetition, and figuration, I repeat. These qualities articulate a sense of the self as particular, discontinuous, limited, private, hidden. Such a concept of self directly subverts the idea that the self is a publicly knowable, organized, single entity. Thus, it challenges all kinds of narrative explanations of character, not only the feminist and psychoanalytic reading of Dickinson's work but the dominant ideology of self-reliance expressed in the prose of nineteenth-century American culture.3 Dickinson's poetry has been read typically as an expression of that ideology when actually it is far more revolutionary in its understanding of the self. Its chief means of revolt is its choice of the publicly degraded lyric form.

Only in America, where there was no great lyric tradition and thus no great tradition of reading the lyric, would this easily conventionalized genre be available for subversive expression. Despite Poe's claim for its importance, the lyric was a woman's form, considered insufficient to express the grandness of America and the American individual, the central mission of the nineteenth-century American literary establishment. This insufficiency of form was coextensive with the insufficiency of a self conceived as incomplete, unsure, recalcitrant, and—it must be admitted—female. The precariousness of identity, the unmappable privacy, and the unacknowledged limitations of individuality could be suggested, evoked, tentatively recognized in the lyric form which shared the very qualities it was called upon to express. Furthermore, the lyric was uniquely available for self-expression in a society where other literary forms for such expression (the diary, the letter, for example) had been conventionalized and absorbed by the cultural imperatives of the Puritan tradition.

Dickinson's exclusive choice of the lyric genre separated her from Emerson and Thoreau, but she was also distanced from them in time. She wrote the bulk of her poems in the early years of the Civil War at the very juncture when the ideology of individualism established by its links to an American destiny was beginning to reveal the limits not of its optimism, which was much later in developing, but of its comprehensiveness. The individualism of Emerson and Thoreau was male, white, middle class, and Protestant. It did not extend to the work of a woman. It is no surprise then that in this woman writer, individualism as a concept gave way to the expression of individuality.

The two are not commensurate as we know from reading Emerson, but it is perhaps Nietzsche who most fully articulates the idea that the word individuality is always spoken with a forked tongue. The concept of individuality with its sense of commonality threatens the claims to individuality. Discussing Nietzsche, Werner Harnacher argues:

Individuality is so fully determined as incommensurability that no individual could correspond to its concept if it were at one with and equal to itself, if it were a thoroughly determined, whole form. Human, All Too Human proposes, in the interests of knowledge, that one not uniformize oneself into rigidity of bearing and that one not treat oneself "like a stiff steadfast, single individual." Only the individual's nonidentity with itself can constitute its individuality. Measured against itself as concept, bearing, and function, the individual proves to be other, to be more—or less—than itself. Its individuality is always only what reaches out beyond its empirical appearance, its social and psychological identities, and its logical form. Individuality is unaccountable surplus.4

This unaccountable surplus is what cannot be made uniform, narrated, and organized into a single individual. It is best expressed not in prose but in lyric poetry where a brief and repeated form depends upon the exposure of particularity and peculiarity. Such limited details rather than extended narrative development will provide relief from the self-defeating ambitions of a coherent and definitive presentation of the self. The lyric poem does not mythologize the individual as a readable organization, making coherence out of isolated moments and fragmentary experience as the novel does; rather the lyric makes isolated moments out of coherence and restores with words the contingency of the self that has been lost to experience.5 Unlike the novel, the lyric's "significant form" does not signify social viability.6

The brevity of the lyric focuses the sharp edges of details that will be necessarily scant. But the pressure of the brief form also attenuates the detail until it changes under scrutiny. Thus, the lyric's brevity enlarges rather than contracts the possibility of the details. Such presentation relies on the profligacy of details rather than on their coherence.

The value of profligacy is the subject of Poem 634 where Dickinson represents not a human being but a bird. A riddle or more accurately a quasi-riddle since it is evident from the start that the subject is a bird, the poem demonstrates the way in which the lyric strains the techniques of representation by rendering clear details opaque and then creating out of that opacity the central clarity. The poem's riddling quality is an important element of its representation because it allows Dickinson to present one thing in terms of another as an image and in the instability of the image to suggest thereby the paradox of identity.7 What we see best, we see least well; what we cannot see or refuse to see becomes clearest evidence. Offering instruction on how to know a bird, Dickinson provides too an inquiry into self-representation.

She starts with alarming confidence in the brief detail: "You'll know Her—by Her Foot." And that particularity presents itself as immediately obstructive since to know her by her foot is to know nothing of the conventional feminine beauty of her face or figure. Nor is it to know much by symbolic extension. The foot, unlike the hand or the heart, does not stand for anything except standing. But, curiously, the first stanza insists on its own particular way of knowing by metaphorical extension, developing in apposition:

You'll know Her—by Her Foot— The smallest Gamboge Hand With Fingers—where the Toes should be— Would more affront the Sand—

No poet could make these connections without thinking of how she herself is known by her poetic foot, and in the apposition of the foot/hand Dickinson makes a whimsical connection between bird and poet, hand writing and poetic foot, which will be developed in the final stanza where she meditates on an idea close to the Nietzschean surplus in individuality.

Before that, however, the poem appears to be a detailed taxonomy of the bird, identified by particular details—her foot, her vest, her cap. But these typical parts lose their immediate force in the poet's efforts to maintain the metaphor of bird and woman. The bird's foot described as "this Quaint Creature's Boot" is rendered unknowable as either foot or boot when the speaker says it is "Without a Button—I could vouch." That testimony guarantees enigma. Without a button, it is not a boot, and so the vouching undoes the knowledge it would confirm. The excursion seems merely decorative, as does the admission that inside her tight-fitting vest she wore a duller jacket when she was born. This wandering bird-knowledge appears inappropriately applied to a figure described as small, snug, tightly encased, finely plumed.

Like Nietzsche's individual, this bird is something other than its type. Its foot is a boot but not a boot; its orange-brown vest is the opposite of its original jacket; its cap appears from a distance no cap at all and then closer up proves to be a cap that is no cap since it has no band or brim. By the sixth stanza, Dickinson has demonstrated convincingly the extent to which details do not represent the whole, and concomitantly the uncertainty of ever knowing the whole either by knowledge of parts as in synecdoche, by knowledge derived from identifying one thing in terms of another or relating the familiar to the unfamiliar as in metaphor, or by personal testimony or by precise description and careful distinction. Even in combination, such ways do not lead to a satisfactory representation of the whole. But the poem does not end with this conclusion toward which it appears to be drawing. Rather, it presents the bird presenting herself:

You'll know Her—by her Voice— At first—a doubtful Tone— A sweet endeavor—but as March To April—hurries on— She squanders on your Ear Such Arguments of Pearl— You beg the Robin in your Brain To keep the other—still—

The "doubtful Tone" that turns into "Arguments of Pearl" is an excessive presentation. And it is perhaps the excess from which the poet imagines the recipient retreating, preferring the idea to this reality.

Such self-presentation as the bird's is always more than enough. It must be excessive if it is to be the expression of an individual, of the "unaccountable surplus" of individuality. This bird of doubtful tone exemplifies Hamacher's description of the Nietzschean individual: "The individual does not live. It outlives. Its being is being out and being over, an insubstantial remainder and excess beyond every determinable form of human life. Instead of being a social or psychic form of human existence, the individual—the self surpassing of type, or genius—is the announcement of what, generally translated as 'superman' or 'overman,' is best translated in this context as 'outman'" (p. 119).

Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity of considering Dickinson's bird an "outman," I draw attention to the way in which the poet presents a bird by brief details and then obliterates these details in the verb "Squanders" where the bird surpasses the type. Thus, the bird is profligate in Nietzschean terms. And the poet behind the bird knows too that, in its squandering, it is casting pearls before swine, claiming individuality in a world that prefers types.

Thus, the brevity of the lyric allows a certain kind of knowing. It demands the excessive patience and attention that only a poet would possess, and it requires an indulgence that Dickinson had every reason to believe her readers would lack. To know by the foot is not a simple knowledge nor is it a different way of knowing something that exists outside the poem; it is rather a form of knowing by excesses only available in brief and metrical form.

Such excesses figure in the brevity of lyric representation by distorting syntax and sense. Knowing by the foot means fitting language to form as in the lines, "Nor is it Clasped unto of Band—/ Nor held upon—of Brim." Extracted from the poem, these lines fail to signify anything; they can signify only in an arrangement of language that prizes apposition, parallel structures, or periphrasis, in short, that prizes excessive statement. Or, another example, the opening quatrain with its comparison of foot to a hand that "Would more affront the Sand" is a deictic chaos, made necessary and then managed by the only full rhyme in the poem—"Sand" holds "hand" in place. Here, Dickinson seems to be underscoring the whimsy of knowing in rhyme and rhythm. Like the bird, the poet too is a squanderer and, like the bird's, her squandering is permitted and limited by brief form and the formal repetition it requires.

The lyric's repetition derives from its brevity, but repetition is curiously essential both to and in the lyric poem. As a way of representation, repetition brought Dickinson's lyrics into conflict with Romantic conceptions of form and subject in nineteenth-century America. A form that depends upon the repetition of its formal elements will not be free nor will it necessarily grow by the principle of organic form. Moreover, the subject presented in repetitive images will not be original and new. It will always be a copy and a copy of a copy.

The vulnerability of the lyric to conventional form and subject is well documented in the history of literature. But for Dickinson, it posed a particular problem. She shared with' her fellow Romantics a suspicion of convention. She knew, as they did, the limits of the self that was made and the character that was formed in large and in little by repeating familiar patterns of behavior, by repeated professions of faith, by copying over moral precepts both in school books and in embroidery lessons at home, by duties performed and performed again. She resisted in her own life these means through which one generation inculcated into the next its values, its identity, its way of life, and forced the self through repetition to grow into a presentable self. It was this self that Thoreau hoped to wash off each morning in his dips into Walden Pond. It was this self that Emerson intended to escape by writing "Whim" on his lintel post and departing from family and friends for a day. And it was this self that Dickinson drew and satirized in several poems. But while Thoreau believed in the natural man beyond the social man and Emerson relied on the genius within, Dickinson as a lyric poet had no access to these plots of redemption.

Rather, she was tied by the repetition in and of the lyric to use repetition as the constituent of character. Again, the limits of the genre enlarged her understanding, and when in Poem 443, for example, she takes repetition as her subject she uses it to express ranges of experience inaccessible to narrative organization. The poem has been enforced into such organization by Barbara Mossberg, who reads it as evidence of the duplicity imposed upon women by the dominant patriarchal culture (p. 197). The repetitive language and strategies of the poem reveal, however, a miserable lack of duplicity or division between inner and outer actions.

The repetition in the verb tense—"I tie my Hat," "I crease my Shawl," "I put new Blossoms in the Glass," "I push a petal from my Gown," "I have so much to do"—describes particular habits by which the lyric "I" prepares herself and her house for presentation to the world. Yet they are not aids in self-making so much as subterfuges behind which she hides both from the world and from herself. More crucially, the theatricality of these acts is doubled by the theatricality within; the outer self acting is in danger at every point of being upstaged by the dramatic, even melodramatic, inner self who "got a Bomb—/ And held it in our Bosom." By this convergence of outer show and inner show, Dickinson calls into question the nature of identity. What is real? What is cover-up? Or, more to the point, do these questions even apply? Is the self only show?

The repetitive gestures of putting on hats and taking off shawls may be obsessive acts, but no more so than the "stinging work—/ To cover what we are," the effort of holding a bomb in the bosom. The speaker justifies her "life's labor" by claiming that it holds "our Senses—on." But on to what? What is the center? What is the periphery here? The speaker's sense that she must "simulate" is, as it must be in the lyric, unexplained. Her boast that she only trembles at the bomb that would make others start suggests a fondness for her own dilemma. She is holding on to "Miles on Miles of Nought" by the same effort of will that nullified the self. Both her inner and her outer life reflect a willingness to act as if "the very least / Were infinite—to me."

Often accused of speaking from beyond the grave, here Dickinson brings the grave into the center of life. This is not a poem in which life as disruption of stasis "seems like an outbreak around which control keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to close" or where "meaning disrupts both vacuous action and the sententia in which such action takes refuge," as Sharon Cameron would have it.8 It is rather a poem about a life in which control is the only meaning and meaning the only control.

In this poem where the inner self is fashioned by the same patterns of repetition that fashion the outer self, the collapse of the division between inner and outer in the speaker makes it possible to collapse the division between self and other. "I" becomes "we" at the very point in mid-poem where the speaker turns from her daily duties to announce the unique errand that should have distinguished her from all others. It is not that the catastrophe deprives her of individuality but that she divests herself of her individuality by surrendering to this single event. "We came to flesh" and "we got a Bomb," the speaker boasts, as if she were somehow made more grand, indeed "completed," by this dwindling of life into a single purpose which it is now her duty to memorialize.

In life lived as a duty, there can be no difference between private and public. The repetitive strategies of the lyric are used here to express the dilemma of the self ensnared in its own trap of meaning. The clotting of the lines with internal rhymes, assonance, consonance, alliteration, anaphora, and phrases in apposition suggests the way in which language can be used to impede change, to repeat sameness, even as it seems to press forward.

"I tie my Hat" is not about loss but about the refusal to give up loss. The speaker in this poem wants to account for the unaccountable surplus of individuality, to explain it in terms of a single completed "errand." But insofar as that "errand" appears undetailed and only abstractly named, it will require endless repetition.

The "Bomb" in the bosom that somehow mysteriously never goes off, that is paradoxically "calm," is pure melodrama, an image that loses its power the second it fixes itself in the imagination or should lose its power. In fact, in critical commentary, it has not. The restitution of order around the bomb evident in the persistent present of the verb "we do life's labor" has come to signify the speaker's martyrdom for critics who want to see in the poem a cause and effect explanation of character, a narrative that will contrast the liveliness of the bomb to the deadliness of routine existence (Mossberg, p. 197). But such a reading provides a plot where plot has been deliberately suppressed by repetitive action; it finds biography where Dickinson has placed only habit.

Dickinson's poems have been particularly vulnerable to narrative explanation, specifically to biographical explication. Vivian R. Pollak justifies this practice by arguing that Dickinson's art of self-display and self-advertisement draws attention to the person behind the poems and so calls for an examination of biographical relationships.9 What Pollak terms self-display and self-advertisement could as easily be called repression as in "I tie my Hat," where the staged performance of daily duties is an evasion of self-knowledge and even the inner faithfulness to the bomb in the bosom has its element of ritual—a display perhaps, but not of the bared self.

The relationship of poet to speaker is not a simple equation; it is always mediated through and suppressed by the lyric's figurative language. Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor who advised her against publishing, "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person" (II, 412). In these terms, she points us in a different direction to ask questions that lead away from biography and toward figuration and supposition or, as in Poem 505, the person supposing. Dickinson's art of self-presentation depends on supposition in "I would not paint—a picture."

The relationship of speaker to Dickinson is intricate and inadequately understood in Adrienne Rich's powerful reading of the poem that identifies Dickinson with the speaker and with the fear of her poetic power.10 All that is known about the actual person who wrote this poem, about her difficulties in reaching the kind of appreciative audience she imagines in this speaker, about the doubts that she might have entertained over the breathlessness of this speaker, about her attitude toward art in general and her own poetry in particular, all this information must be added to the poem when it is read as a political and social tract. But if such reading seems reductive in its extraneousness, equally reductive is the view of the speaker here as purified of contingency by the lyric. It is a poet, after all, who is writing "Nor would I be a Poet" and imagining what the dower of art would be. Hers is a mixed voice, contaminated by its source and, as we shall see, easily blending into its circumstances.

The speaker of this poem is a person supposing, dwelling in supposition, and, as such, she moves in and out of identities. She figures, refigures, and figures again. Now audience, now artist, she is a creature without a core, free to dwell on and in the creator's feelings and the feelings that creation inspires, as open to elevation as to fixity, both impotent and privileged. The speaker is all feeling here, and her feeling is dependent on what will arouse it. But it is a productive and willing dependency that drives her to superfluous denials and extravagant affirmations. "I would not paint," "I would not talk" are excessive protestations. Denying herself what she most wants, the speaker intensifies its pleasures by doubling them in creating the occasion for the poem. Sweet torment and sumptuous despair are moods of desire prolonged and longingly anticipated, not evidence of Dickinson's passivity as Rich has argued. The speaker's relishing of her own relishing cannot fit into Rich's narrative of female repression because it is perversely an unrepressed narrative—a desire that is always for something else, always reaching out toward something, never satisfying itself except in its repetition and perpetuation. The poet is not frustrated in her desire to be a painter but rather thrilled by the desire to feel what the painter feels. She is not denied art; she has after all "fingers" of her own which stir, as we read, evoking both in the writer and in the reader their own sweet torment.

Again, in the second stanza, the speaker repeats her rapture. Just as in the first stanza where there was an odd disproportion between the "bright impossibility" of paintings and the "fingers" of the painter, so here the speaker as "endued Balloon" launched by "a lip of Metal" presents herself as soaring high from rather low inspiration. The talk of cornets is banal by comparison to the speaker's elevation through "Villages of Ether." The transport of art and the ability to be transported by art thrill the speaker who marvels at her own powers to be moved by " but a lip." The cornet player is a performer, not a creator, and his performance is rendered remarkable by the response of the "One / Raised softly to the Ceilings." She, too, is a performer—and on a higher wire.

The final stanza narrows the gap between creator/performer and audience/performer by endowing the speaker with the "Ear" for the poet and of the poet. Identities blur. The ear of the poet as of her audience is "Enamored—impotent—content," a passive receiver and willing receptacle. It is through the ear that both will be inspired and stunned by "Bolts of Melody." The separate identities of the creator and the reverent appreciator of poetry compose a fantasy that had started disingenuously in the speaker's wondering how the painter's fingers feel and how the musician's lips could inspire her, but it is a fantasy of self-empowerment, not selfdiminishment. The speaker also has fingers, also has lips, even as she has "the Ear." "What would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to Stun myself," she speculates, but only after she has presented herself as stunned and stunnable. She has the "Art."

The supposed person that Dickinson might have called the representative of this verse is less a person than the power of supposition. Drawing up a dramatis personae for the poem or outlining a narrative continuity of envy and renunciation both diminishes and mislocates the power which names itself only in repetition. "I would not paint," "I would not talk," "Nor would I be a Poet" are repeated affirmations of the always unsatisfied, always to be satisfied desire to create. They celebrate themselves in prolonging the moment of desire just before it is satisfied. If a narrative of sexual longing and consummation cannot be easily generated from these unanchored images, the eroticism of the language here has its oddity.

The description of a painter creating a picture by the "rare—celestial—stir" of fingers is not mimetic. The words move from perceiver to perceived, from effect to affect, along a wayward path that zigzags between sound and sense. Sound alone seems to require the preposterous metaphor "Pontoon" for the self. And finally the wish to know what the dower would be if one could electrify oneself seems willful semantic wandering.

The excess in this language cannot do more than point to the excessiveness in the speaker's fantasy of self. She would be sweetly tormented, sumptuously despaired, raised and endued, awed and stunned, moved beyond sense. In her state of elevated and extravagant longing, the speaker is wanton with language, disposing lines with abandon as if they were impediments to rather than expressions of anticipated ecstasy. If language cannot speak itself, it must appropriate a channel for its transmission. The channel in lyric poetry need not be a fully developed character defined by birth and death dates, by family and a maturation plot; it can be, as here, a voice that speaks from shifting perspectives, that inhabits various frequencies, that has no center but rather many circumferences.

From the robin to the woman of melodramatic routine to this disembodied power of supposition, the examples I have chosen appear—when placed together—random, discontinuous, and uncentered. They are intentionally so because I want to suggest something of Dickinson's profligacy. It is possible to set the poem about the robin in the context of Dickinson's riddles or of her bird poems and to discuss Poem 505 with other poems in which Dickinson sets out her poetics. Or all three poems could be adapted to one or more narratives of social repression, artistic restriction, romantic deprivation. But although such order and explanation might justify critical discourse, even my own, it would have to be superimposed and designed to suppress or ignore the fact that the poems are discrete forms, perhaps part of a larger whole that is the poet's imaginative world but deliberately brief, separate, disconnected units of expression.

Even as I insist on that aspect of the work, I am aware of the misfit between the brevity of the lyric and the length of my own commentary. Little can be concluded from one brief lyric or three. Only the fact that Dickinson chose this form consistently makes it possible to argue that the form itself is an important confirmation or creation of her sense of self. Thus, I return once more to consider the properties of the lyric: brevity, repetition, and figuration.

The brevity of the lyrics she wrote is a form of artistic restraint that relies paradoxically on excess. In an age of sprawling masterpieces that followed the laws of nature, chapters proliferating as branches grow from trunks, in Melville's terms, the brevity, compactness, and convention of the lyric form appear unnecessarily restrictive. Yet Dickinson could use the brevity of the lyric to suggest even more freely than Melville the unaccountability of individuality. Although the lyric speaker can be conventionalized by the form itself, insofar as she is imaged in details rather than as a whole, particularized rather than totalized, she appears not conventional at all.

Such a speaker presents herself partially, not fully; her whole existence is, for us, partial. Measured against Ahab, for example, the lyric speaker suggests a sense of self that is certainly limited and yet remains paradoxically free from the restraints of social viability that will be exerted on the novelistic character. The partial may be, if not all there is, more than we realize. Brevity, then, may be the soul of character.

The brevity of the lyric form enforces its repetition. It encourages a refiguration of the already figured, and so it permits a concept of the self not only as partial but as excessive. In composing over a hundred poems that start with "I," Dickinson could create and recreate a supposed person supposing one way and then another. No single "errand" for her, the lyric speaker is singular, unique, isolated, changeable, not to be made into one composite person by joining poems together. The lyric "I" is not the real-life poet or even part of her because she will not share her beginning or her end, her history. She is not a copy of that original either because she is always and conventionally partial.

Formally, repetition encourages a predictability that nonetheless permits disruption and gaps. Dickinson establishes a repetitive rhythm or rhyme scheme or organizing grammar and then breaks it, as she does in "I tie my Hat" when she breaks the rhythm with "Stopped—struck—my ticking—through" and the rhyme in "Too Telescopic Eyes / To bear on us unshaded—/ For their—sake—not for Ours" and the grammar in "But since we got a Bomb—/ And held it in our Bosom." The disruption, only made possible by the expectations of repetitive form, allows the brief lyric to expand its space, to incorporate blanks, to open indeterminately.

Repetition in the lyric as, for example, in the anaphora of "I would not paint—a picture—" becomes a means of obstructing narrative explanation. It also precludes the organization of events in a causal series. And it leaves open the question of what is original, what copy, as, for example, in " I tie my Hat" in which the repetitive routine gestures of the speaker may imitate a deadened inner life or may be themselves the originator of that life.11

Finally, the figurative language of a lyric poem represses one term under another and suggests again the profligacy of such repression. The self is not exposed in figurative language but hidden and shielded and thus freed from social definition. Such freedom allows for the whimsy always available in self-presentation. The lyric character may be called "Pontoon" perhaps only to rhyme with "Balloon" or stuck in the improbable pose of holding a bomb in the bosom or singing not a tune but a "tone." The lyric "I" is free because its relationship to even the "I" of a supposed person is of copy to copy. It can proliferate endlessly. Although Dickinson describes one speaker acting "With scrupulous exactness—/ To hold our Senses—on," she actually calls into question the center around which such exactness would accrue both in that particular poem and in a lifetime's accumulation of such poems.

In concentrating on the brevity, the repetition, and the figuration of the lyric form, I have attempted to read Dickinson's poems by the qualities they possess. These terms may only be useful for Dickinson's work; they will not all serve Wordsworth's lyrics or Milton's or Shakespeare's, for example. Thus, they cannot be worked into a model for reading all lyric poetry. But they are important here because they point to the essential qualities of Dickinson's work: its interest in the unaccountable surplus of individuality, in repetition as constituent of character, and in figurative excess as essential to self-presentation.

The problems of interpretation that Dickinson's poetry poses are essentially problems of narrative readability which have usually been resolved by the imposition of a master narrative on the work and the life. Feminist critics of Dickinson who have brought so much new energy to the reading of her poetry are only the latest version of this tendency; they have been preceded by psychoanalytic critics, biographers, and cultural historians. Dickinson's work evades them because it represents a much more radical understanding of the self than American feminists, tied as they are to a social explanation of character, can allow. Dickinson's lyric speakers have no narrative continuity, no social viability, no steadfast identity.' In their squandering, melodrama, and excesses, they express an individuality that resists final representation and the control that signifies. Yet Dickinson's lyric presentation of a self that obstructs narrative reading because it is discontinuous, profligate, and excessive may be the nineteenth century's most revolutionary expression of individuality. Thus, it may offer not only a new model for reading the lyric but a new and perhaps persuasively feminist model of self-presentation.


1 It is not only the feminists who have read for the plot. Early and late, narrativizing critics have worked on Dickinson. See for example Clark Griffith's The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964) which traces her traumatic relationship with her father as the source of her tragic poetry or John Cody's After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971) which uses the poetry as a psychoanalytic case study. Among representative feminist readings of Dickinson are Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), Joanne Feit Diehl, Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg, Emily Dickinson: When a Writer Is a Daughter (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), and Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Boston: Beacon, 1986). Based on a model of binary opposition, these varied readings of Dickinson stress the extent to which she was different because she was made to be by a society that restricted or repressed women's expression. Sacvan Bercovitch in The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975) explores the strain on the individual from the demands of American individualism in terms that explain some of the difficulties of reading Dickinson's poetry.

References to Dickinson's work are to The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957), and The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958). References will appear in the text in parentheses.

2 In talking about the brevity of Dickinson's poems, I mean only to suggest a general characteristic of all lyric poems and not to stress the particular ways in which Dickinson exploited brevity or limitation as a theme. For such treatment, see Jane Donahue Eberwein's Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1985).

3 See Sacvan Bercovitch's discussion of Emerson for a complete treatment of his sense of the public self. The whole question of privacy is a central concern of Dickinson. For example, in Poem 1385, she deals directly with the impossibility of publishing the private, making public the secret. Dickinson's privacy is an issue of some debate among her critics. She is charged with being too private by Elinor Wilnor, "The Poetics of Emily Dickinson," ELH, 38 (1971), 126-54, and David Porter, Dickinson: The Modern Idiom (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981). Robert Weisbuch has defended her habit of privacy in Emily Dickinson's Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975). More recently, Christopher E. G. Benfey has discussed the issue of privacy and secrecy as a longing for invisibility in Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

4 '"Disintegration of the Will': Nietzsche on the Individual and Individuality," in Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in WesternThought, ed. Thomas C. Heller et al. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1986), p. 110.

5 For more on Nietzsche, the self, and contingency, see Richard Rorty, "The Contingency of Self," London Review of Books, 8 (8 May 1986), 11-15.

6 I am indebted here to the arguments of Leo Bersani in The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 82-83.

7 I rely here on Andrew Welsh's discussion of riddle in Roots of Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978), p. 30.

8 "¢ Loaded Gun': Dickinson and the Dialectic of Rage," PMLA, 93 (1978), 431.

9Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 18-19.

10 "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 169. Rich gives this much repeated reading its most palatable form because she does understand that for Dickinson there is no split between masculine creativity and feminine receptivity. Other feminists have taken up the split that Rich identifies and then denies and have made much of it. See Diehl, pp. 19-20.

11 I am indebted here to Gilles Deleuze's discussion of repetition in Différence et Répétition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), pp. 96-168.

Karen Oakes (Kilcup) (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "Welcome and Beware: The Reader and Emily Dickinson's Figurative Language," in ESQ, Vol. 34, No. 3, 1988, pp. 181-206.

[In the following essay, Oakes argues that Dickinson uses metonymy to develop a "culturally feminine " discursive intimacy with her readers.]

"Much Madness is divinest Sense—/ To a discerning Eye," affirms Emily Dickinson: how one "reads" depends on the quality of the reader's lens, the "I." Dickinson muses often, directly and indirectly, about reading. Poetry stuns with "Bolts of Melody"; from "A Word dropped careless on a Page," the reader may "inhale" "Infection," "Despair," "Malaria."1 To Higginson, she insists, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way" (Letter 342a). But how does poetry engage or threaten a reader? What or who is Dickinson's reader?

I will argue that the poet's vivid sense of participation in the reading process, based in her feminine psychology, informs how she imagines her strongest relationship with her own reader. Specifically, I will argue that Dickinson uses metonymy, and, in particular, the implied or stated "you," to seek a culturally feminine (that is, not merely female) discourse which establishes or presumes a process of intimacy with a reader.2 Her attitude toward this intimacy ranges from anxiety and hostility to hospitality. As a preliminary, I will outline Dickinson's version of the poet-reader drama and compare it to some contemporary perspectives on reading; then I will discuss those poems which imagine a masculine reader; finally, I will engage poems that, because they invite and require of the reader a role beyond interpreter, test more vividly and kinetically the balance of intimacy between a feminine self and other.

Feminist psychological theory suggests that the feminine self is more fluid than the autonomous, individuated masculine self. Nancy Chodorow argues that the "basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate," and that "feminine personality comes to include a fundamental definition of self in relationship." Jean Baker Miller observes that "for many women the threat of disruption of an affiliation is perceived not as just a loss of a relationship but as something closer to a total loss of self." Finally, Carol Gilligan emphasizes that "The conflict between self and other … constitutes the central moral problem for women, posing a dilemma whose resolution requires a reconciliation between femininity and adulthood." In a culture which defines adulthood as independence and care of the self—that is, in masculine terms—and femininity as connection with and care of others, the adult female faces chronic conflict and loss of authenticity.3

Dickinson enacts this conflict in all aspects of her life. Cynthia Griffin Wolff describes the poet's fears of losing Austin and Lavinia in terms that echo Miller and Gilligan: "'Childhood' was that time when the three Dickinson children had all been together and Emily had experienced the deep, intuitive understanding that her nature craved; 'adulthood' entailed the possibility of prolonged, perhaps permanent loneliness—and it was a threat not merely to her happiness, but to the integrity of her very self." Wolff concludes, "Emily Dickinson consistently construed separation as a kind of 'death'—death of the beloved friend or disintegration of her own sense of coherent identity." Often requiring separation from beloved others, "adulthood" remained at best an ambivalent goal.4

Being a poet exacerbates this dilemma of femininity. As Lionel Trilling describes "normal" artist-audience relations in Sincerity and Authenticity, over the past two centuries the writer has increasingly come to define himself as privileged, autonomous and even hostile to his audience. Similarly, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar emphasize the poet's essential separateness: "the poet, even when writing in the third person, says 'I.'" At best, these concepts of the poet suggest his remoteness or detachment from the reader.5 Trilling, in particular, suggests the psychologically masculine, hierarchical terms in which the poet perceives his reader, for if he conceives himself as unitary and independent, then readers, while necessary for fulfillment of the poetic project, seem invasive, even inimical.

Does Dickinson's story of reading reflect the potential indifference or hostility of masculine writers, or her own predilections as a feminine reader? Discussing the reading process in ways which elucidate the poet's experience, Judith Kegan Gardiner and Patrocinio Schweickart argue that women read with more involvement than men; both suggest that for feminine selves, reading involves process, temporality. Gardiner emphasizes the proximity and interaction between women writers, women characters, and women readers: "The implied relationship between the self and what one reads and writes is personal and intense."6 Schweickart extends Gardiner's observation, proposing that the female reader and writer share a "dialogic" relationship, noteworthy as an "intersubjective encounter." "The reader encounters not simply a text, but a 'subjectified object': the 'heart and mind' of another woman. She comes into close contact with an interiority—a power, a creativity, a suffering, a vision—that is not identical with her own."7 In terms which echo Gilligan's conflict between (normative, masculine) adulthood and femininity, Schweickart argues that the dilemma for feminine writer and reader is balancing the claims of other and self, "of managing the contradictory implications of the desire for relationship (one must maintain a minimal distance from the other) and the desire for intimacy," up to and including a symbiotic merger with the other (p. 55).

Dickinson's work explores and underscores the difficulties of achieving this balance. For several reasons, metonymy offers an appropriate means by which to engage the poems. First, as a figure of proximity and linking, connection with the other, metonymy offers a cultural and psychological metaphor for the feminine.8 Second, it involves the "you," and while the mere presence of "you" in a poem does not suggest a rapprochement with the reader (nor does its absence signal our exclusion), focus on the second person provides a potential means of access to the reader.9 Third, linked with narrative and chronology, metonymy emphasizes process, which Gardiner and Schweickart identify as a feminine concern and which the idea of reading as interactive suggests.10 The intensity and immediacy which the second person enhances often intrigues Dickinson, who suggests the idea of poetic "experience"—knowing rather than knowledge—in her comments to Higginson. Finally, metonymy occupies the feminine position in poetry, for as Jakobson points out, interpreters have consistently devalued it in contrast to metaphor, assigning it "prosaic" status, in part because of the shared metalinguistic function of metaphor and interpretation.11

In two essays which investigate how Dickinson uses metonymy, Margaret Homans explores not only the hierarchy in metaphor's dominance of poetry, but that within the figure itself. In the first, she cites French feminist critic Luce Irigaray, underlining metaphor's concern with power relationships: "one term claims the authority to define the other term—or, in its implications for the personal, one person claims the authority to define another person."12 Homans parallels the hierarchy of metaphor to the romantic coupling of male and female; and while she investigates metonymy in Dickinson as the figure for relationships among equals—women—she argues that the poet rejects as "stasis" the proximity and connection which this figure comprehends. In this first essay, Homans regards metonymy more as figure and less as gesture toward the reader.

In her more recent study, Homans shows the potential of metonymy to undermine metaphor's hierarchy. Using the same theoretical framework, she suggests that metaphor is the figure of choice for the male subject pursuing and desiring the unavailable or distant female object within a masculine sexual economy founded in specular self-definition. Because female sexuality is "invisible," it defies representation by a (metaphoric) figurative structure based on resemblance, or "looking" ('"Syllables,'" pp. 570ff.). Homans argues that Dickinson substitutes for this economy a feminine perspective which values a nonhierarchical "pleasure" over appropriative "desire," and "a female sexuality (privileging touch) that is also a female textuality (privileging metonymy)" over a visual, metaphoric male sexuality/textuality (pp. 580, 579). This substitution is a happy one: "in a relation that lacks the distinction between subject and object and that therefore lacks the motive for metaphor, the motive for desire, the painful plot of desire is replaced by a plotless and joyous intersubjectivity" (p. 583).

Although she does not focus directly on the "you," Homans speaks most to the present study when she turns her attention to reader relations. In discussing one poem (Poem 334), Homans argues that in the "undecidability of the referentiality" offered by metonymy, Dickinson emphasizes the reader's equal importance in lyric: "Reading is equivalent to writing or speaking, and these communciations are equivalent to sexual communion …" (p. 584). Furthermore, the poem's interchangeable pronoun references underline how "speaker and reader have become interchangeable (as interchangeable as sexual partners, especially of the same sex) …" (pp. 584-585). The poem empowers the reader by refusing to be referential, metaphorical—by refusing to subordinate ground to figure. Three aspects of Homans' argument seem useful here: her emphasis on Dickinson's indeterminacy, which she suggests emphasizes the reader's role in the production of meaning; her notion of sexual intimacy with the reader; and her description of reading as a process rather than a search for a product.13

In extending Homans' argument, we need to examine in more detail the nature and effects of this intimacy and Dickinson's attitude toward it. To what degree does she perform or rewrite the masculine concept of the poet as autonomous, distinct from the reader, and hence potentially threatened by that reader? How does the implied gender of the reader affect the poet-reader relationship? What are the consequences when a poet imagines herself and her reader as essentially feminine? Metonymy is not necessarily non-hierarchical and feminine, linking self and other on equal terms in what Homans calls "a plotless and joyous inter-subjectivity" (p. 583); rather, Dickinson's feminine discourse dramatizes a dialogical tension between self and other, "I" and "you." From one perspective in particular, Dickinson suggests the potential violence inherent in the coupling of reader and poem, perhaps because that joining may echo the romantic, masculine sexual economy which Homans describes. In this version of Dickinson's drama, the masculine reader desires the poet.


Dickinson and the Masculine Reader

In her comments to Higginson about reading, Dickinson emphasizes her visceral involvement and personal danger; nevertheless, poetry compels by virtue of its power and immediacy. Cognitive engagement alone does not satisfy her, but affective engagement must parallel or even supercede it.14 Physical, transformative, mimicking death, reading becomes interactive, even sexual, according with Homans' view of the sexual and kinetic aspect of reading and writing. In Poem 1247, Dickinson makes the link between poetry, love, and death more explicit:

To pile like Thunder to it's close Then crumble grand away While Everything created hid This—would be Poetry— Or Love—the two coeval come— We both and neither prove— Experience either and consume— For None see God and live—

Emphatically kinetic, the reading process, figured by the verb "Experience," which suggests a kind of "knowing," offers a dramatic and climactic sexual coupling of reader and poet, of reader and poem. What kind of "Love" does she envision? If she imagines the reader as masculine, that is, as autonomous, remote, and hence potentially judgmental, Dickinson approaches him in at least three ways: first, detached, objective, and noncommittal; second, childlike, and hence sexually and romantically unavailable; and third, adversarial and preemptive.

Intercourse or dialogue is difficult to achieve with a certain kind of reader. In a poem about a bird singing (Poem 526), Dickinson's prototypical metaphor for poetry, she emphasizes the disparity between speaker and reader. The poem begins:

To hear an Oriole sing May be a common thing— Or only a divine. It is not of the Bird Who sings the same, unheard, As unto Crowd— The Fashion of the Ear Attireth that it hear In Dun, or fair— So whether it be Rune Or whether it be none Is of within.

Whether they regard the song as "Dun" or "fair," "common" or "divine," its auditors "fashion" it as much as its singer does. Associated with femininity, "Fashion" suggests the ephemeral nature of interpretation, perhaps reassuring the singer that recognition or oblivion depends not solely on merit. But Dickinson has in mind a particular kind of interpreter:

The "Tune is in the Tree—" The Skeptic—showeth me— "No Sir! In Thee!"

She portrays the listener as a specifically male "Skeptic"; and she gestures toward her comment to Higginson that "All men say 'What' to me, but I thought it a fashion—" (Letter 271). As much a gender term as a generic one, "men" seem to be the primary readers in this scene; she knows that "Sir," as embodied by Dickinson's "Preceptor," hears certain voices with neither perceptiveness nor originality. Yet the terms of her criticism suggest that she attacks cultural gender identity rather than biological gender. Intersubjectivity, and sometimes even communication, are problematic, in part because of the masculine reader's perspective of detachment, polarity, and judgment, which she underlines in her specious "conversation" with the "Skeptic."

The speaker's stance here answers her reader's: apparently "objective," analytical, non-narrative, and metaphoric, with the "Oriole" representing a poet. But if the bird's song figures poetry, it represents an incomplete version of the poet, signaling only a part of the whole bird whom the masculine listener erases. Similarly, Dickinson embeds metonymy in the striking image, "Fashion of the Ear," which reduces the interpreter to a mere physical organ, suggesting the limitation of his apprehension, a limitation she underlines with the irony of "only a divine." Detaching and distinguishing herself from him while she echoes his voice, she addresses the poem's "you" to him, only indirectly, at the end.

If the workings of this interpreter appear mysterious, concealed, "of within," they also appear potentially hostile, transforming at whim an initially value-free song into ho-hum dailiness or transcendent meaning. Dickinson envisions a similarly vulnerable but more childlike speaker in Poem 441:

This is my letter to the World That never wrote to Me— The simple News that Nature told— With tender Majesty Her Message is committed To Hands I cannot see— For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen— Judge tenderly—of Me

In spite of its stick-out-the-tongue opening lines, what strikes me most forcibly is the speaker's sense of remoteness from her readers, whom she reduces, metonymically, to "Hands," capable of applauding or tearing apart, caressing or spanking. As in " To hear an Oriole sing, " the workings of the reader are invisible; as in that poem, she assigns to the reader the role of remote, hence masculine "Judge," not participant. Given his detachment, the speaker hesitates to attribute her words to herself; instead, she is the purveyor of Nature's "Message," just as in Poem 526, she becomes an "Oriole." These speakers imagine readers capable of harm who necessitate her withdrawal or concealment, even though the notion of poem as "Letter" suggests, if not an intimate relationship with the reader, at least one with prior boundaries, context, and history.15

Dickinson's "real" letters were an important resource of proximity, capable of healing broken connection, and (as we shall see later in more detail) equally capable of the kind of excess rhetoricity and distance that we normally associate with poems. In Poem 441, she foresees and tries to fend off potential hostility from an adversarial other, while she expresses it covertly in the sulky, defiant first stanza. Metonymy, specifically the "you" implied in the "countrymen," underlines the distance between speaker and reader. The end of this pseudo-letter parodies the intimacy of real letters, for the vulnerable and receding inscriber addresses it to "Occupant": "Sweet—countrymen."

In Poem 416, which suggests a similar childlike perspective, Dickinson enacts the conflict between femininity and adulthood. It opens with an apparently contextless narration:

A Murmur in the Trees—to note— Not loud enough—for Wind— A Star—not far enough to seek— Nor near enough—to find— A long—long Yellow—on the Lawn— A Hubbub—as of feet— Not audible—as Our's—to Us— But dapperer—More Sweet— A Hurrying Home of little Men To Houses unperceived—

As if writing a letter to a familiar other, the speaker begins with the recreation of a shared scene—we know what "Trees" and "Lawn" she's talking about—and she invites the reader/listener to recall an imaginative perspective capable of "recognizing" the unspecified "Murmur," the "Star," and the "long Yellow." The conflation of "you" and "I" into "Our's" suggests their metonymie connectedness; interestingly, the terms of perception are those of " To hear an Oriole sing, " for speaker and reader share less a way of seeing than a way of hearing. What they hear is somehow secret or private, for their object is the childlike world of elves or dolls, "little Men."

Her recollection of the phallic and ostensibly metaphoric "little Men," however, seems to inspire withdrawal, and she underscores the disparity of imagination between herself and her auditor:

All this—and more—if I should tell— Would never be believed— Of Robins in the Trundle bed How many I espy Whose Nightgowns could not hide the Wings— Although I heard them try— But then I promised ne'er to tell— How could I break My Word? So go your Way—and I'll go Mine— No fear you'll miss the Road.

The speaker detaches herself from the shared perspective of "Our's" and emphasizes her own "childish" vision and speech: the comic, even ridiculous figure of "Nightgown[ed]" "Robins in the Trundle bed" will "never be believed" by the "you" the speaker imagines in the last stanza. Imagining that we fail because we evade full participation in the role of playmate which she invokes at the beginning, the speaker dramatizes her separation from the reader with the ironic last line, in which "the Road" suggests a narrow and unimaginative "adult" perspective.

The obverse of this failure is our exclusion—the speaker sets herself apart from her listener, whom she teasingly and ironically "tell[s]" and refuses to tell. If we wonder to whom she has given her "Word" to be silent, then we become the outsider whom she imagines; at the same time, she gives us her "Word," in the form of the poem itself. Telling and not telling, invoking metonymie proximity and metaphoric distance, she underlines her ambivalence about relationships which involve secrets and intimacy. Withdrawing into the world of children, where potent adults can be reduced to "little Men," she screens herself from invasion by a foreign consciousness. She throws the judgmental deaf adult, the masculine reader, out of her dollhouse.

Dickinson rehearses the theme of intimacy again in a poem which indicates more shockingly her attitude toward the masculine reader. Poem 577 begins:

If I may have it, when it's dead, I'll be contented—so— If just as soon as Breath is out It shall belong to me— Until they lock it in the Grave, 'Tis Bliss I cannot weigh— For tho' they lock Thee in the Grave, Myself—can own the key— Think of it Lover! I and Thee Permitted—face to face to be— After a Life—a Death—We'll say— For Death was That— And This—is Thee—

Enticing us with its quiet informality, the speaker's proleptic perspective evinces a peculiar combination of courtesy and shocking casualness about her lover's dead body. Her desire for the corpse appears particularly macabre and demented in relation to her lucid, courteous language; parodying elegiac convention and the nineteenth-century female's pre-occupation with death, this speaker expresses not a lament for death but her "contented" state, her "Bliss."16 By beginning in an elliptical manner, she assumes that we are familiar with her context and situation; with her confidential tone addressed to "Thee" and with the imperative, Dickinson assumes the most personal of relationships, internal to the poem, between the "I" and the "you," who is eventually defined as a "Lover." By withholding his identity, she entices us to become the "Lover," the poem's intimate other.17

In the next stanza she concedes that "our" death has given her pain, and she goes on to confess that pain gives way to numbness and to a kind of sign-language that seems to recover the relationship after the death of both lovers:

Then how the Grief got sleepy—some— As if my Soul were deaf and dumb— Just making signs—across—to Thee— That this way—thou could'st notice me— I'll tell you how I tried to keep A smile, to show you, when this Deep All Waded—We look back for Play, At those Old Times—in Calvary.

"Play" reminds us of the childish speakers in the two previous poems, and it suggests the possibility of shared delight. Homans claims that the post-mortem realm offers a non-hierarchical because non-verbal context for relationship.18 But Dickinson transforms the game into a very serious sexual drama in which the masculine lover/reader must silence his desire for her and become the object of her desire, because the narrator has assumed his traditional power as speaking subject:

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow— For Coveting to look at Thee— Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost Outvisions Paradise!

Although in the penultimate stanza the speaker imagines her own death, she ultimately refuses to relinquish her vision of the lover, making the reader-lover the poem's victim, placing him uncompromisingly in the position of the silent corpse. Such a relationship, however "intimate," is unequal and dangerous.19 If the imagination of loss enables the speaker to construct an Edenic future for herself, it is based on the lover-reader's exclusion: she prefers "strok[ing] thy frost," caressing him verbally, to "Paradise." The speaker's "Play" is not mere playfulness with the "Lover," but a veiled drama of murder and detachment from him. We learn from this speaker that reading as a masculine, desiring other can result in death.20


The Lover and the Sororal Drama

Does Dickinson view "Love" as necessarily destructive, aimed with sinister intention at a hapless victim? The answer rests in part on how she conceives the reader; "intimacy" assumes many forms, for she attracts, frustrates, and endangers a participant, affective reader whom she imagines as feminine.21 These dramas share a concern for self-preservation and for dialogue, and they locate meaning less in the residue of ideas with which we conclude a reading, in the script, and more in the performer and performance. A portion of an early letter to her friend Sue Gilbert illuminates the complexity of close personal relationships for the poet, as she regards and enacts both romantic and sororal connections:

Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it's own, and we shall not run from it, but lie still and be happy! (Letter 93)

Dickinson's attitude toward the romantic relationship of husband and wife emerges vividly in her images: the lover-husband simultaneously attracts and repels, inspires awe and fear. The tension between excitement and fear culminates in her ambiguous assertion that "we shall … lie still and be happy!"

As striking as the subject matter of the letter is its style, for it makes a gesture toward the reader which exceeds the demands of a private and anxious letter about marriage—it has an excess rhetoricity which reaches beyond the boundaries of the particular situation.22 Although Dickinson's letter addresses a friend to whom she may (presumably) say almost anything, her language is curiously restrained and artificial. At the same time, the structure and movement of this paragraph, as well as its conjunctive style and address to the intimate "you," invite the reader's participation in a reenactment of the process she describes. The climactic moment in this process occurs when we perceive the "[heart] gang wildly beating." With its association of blood and passion, this synecdoche intimates the fearful and exciting sexuality of "[t]hose unions," which the rhythm of the paragraph mimics, as she encloses each phrase with commas. She invites the reader to become equally "possessed," an invitation which suggests her ambivalence about the "you."

The second section of the letter performs a similar process of increasing involvement and intensity:

You and I have been strangely silent upon this subject, Susie, we have often touched upon it, and as quickly fled away, as children shut their eyes when the sun is too bright for them…. How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but—dew? No, they will cry for sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho' it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace—they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous, and it is all to dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up.

Although the experience centers on a metaphor, the striking "man of noon," Dickinson uses metonymy both to detach herself and Susan and to participate vicariously in the risk and excitement which such a relationship entails. Removing herself and her friend from the hierarchical social realm, describing "their" "lives" as distinct from "our lives," the poet reenacts the appropriation of the feminine other, stylistically as well as semantically. The wavelike, sexual tension of the passage gathers, as she accretes image after image, separated by semicolons, and it climaxes with the rhetorical question—will "dew" now suffice for these "blossoms"—whose only possible response is "No."

If the poet eludes the appropriative masculine figure, however, the reader's role is far less certain. With Susan, we may only partially share the safe space she creates for herself with the "you," because the letter works not merely as message but also as process; in its rhythms and pauses, its emphases, it recreates (or we recreate as we read), even on a physiological level, the self-erasure which is its subject. In our own way, we too are "yielded up," and relief arrives only with the poet's retrospective and ironic comment on her extravagance (and her freedom): "Susie, you will forgive me my amatory strain—it has been a very long one, and if this saucy page did not here bind and fetter me, I might have had no end." This remark foregrounds her "artificial" relationship to her audience, both contemporary and present. Dickinson makes demands upon her reader, exploring not only social connections but also conventions of written intercourse. This letter illustrates Dickinson's ambivalent, feminine concern with relationship, and it provides us with an example of the reader as intimate feminine other. The poet offers us, with Susan, the chance to rehearse being "yielded up"—not merely to the "man of noon" but also to the rhetorical cavern of the poet's metonymy.

Many of Dickinson's other poems include a gesture to the "you" imagined as a permutation of a feminine other, involving the reader not as a "Skeptic," "Judge," or even "Lover," but as a playmate, friend, and intimate. Like the speakers of Poem 441 and Poem 416, the speaker of Poem 288 assumes the role of a child. This poem, however, even more explicitly scripts an interaction between reader and speaker, underlining the process of reading.

I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you—Nobody—too? Then there's a pair of us! Dont tell! they'd banish us—you know! How dreary—to be—Somebody! How public—like a Frog— To tell your name—the livelong June— To an admiring Bog!

The speaker invites our participation by asking questions, by defining us as her equal; the only person capable of hearing her or of being hospitable to her is another "Nobody." To be a "Nobody" is to be at once an individual, different from the crowd, the "Bog," and in some respects banished as outsider and Other, but also to have a subversive private dialogue with those able to share the joke. Like Odysseus in the Cyclops' cave, the narrator at once proclaims her name and triumphantly recedes behind it. Unlike him, she shares her triumph with her auditor.

The potential publicity of being "Somebody" carries a specifically sexual threat. In the cycle of seasons, the "Frog" announces himself in order to find a mate; here, ironically, the speaker finds a "mate," the other member of a "pair," in the reader, but they share an unavailability to the sexual egress of the fairytale frog-prince, whom the speaker fends off with her childlike persona ("Dont tell!" she urges). To participate, we must become playmates engaged in intercourse. The metonymy of the "you," aimed at the reader, overcomes the metaphoric, romantic economy of the larger world of the "Bog." Homans' observation that the interaction between the speaker and reader occurs most efficiently between members of the same sex seems accurate here; however, the relationship Dickinson depicts is relentlessly pre-sexual, recalling once again Gilligan's argument that in the feminine self, desire for relationship clashes with an adult self-definition. The poet's feminine discourse insists that the reader-other in the poem must choose between two roles, that of "public" masculine frog or "private" feminine playmate. While emphasizing the process of relationship, Dickinson resolves her conflict by refusing adult sexuality.

In Poem 188, the auditor is a friend with a different role:

Make me a picture of the sun— So I can hang it in my room— And make believe I'm getting warm When others call it "Day"!

Apparently genderless, the vulnerable speaker recalls Gilligan's definition of women's dilemma in choosing between femininity and adulthood; this observation suggests that there is a sense in which all child-voices are feminine. Less with command than with request or plea, this speaker attracts us, though she does not welcome us, into her domain. The auditor seems to have some privilege, for she has had experience, if not contact, with the "sun," the center of the world outside of the speaker's "room"; at the same time, she shares the knowledge of the speaker's desires and fears. The sun's value is problematic, for though the narrator desires it, its image alone fails to keep her "warm," and she will have to "make believe," to play a game. Like children playing with fingerpaints, the speaker asks her friend to recreate (at a safe distance, in the haven of her room/womb) the adult world of the sun, the desirable and fearful "man of noon." She questions his image's ability to "warm" her: to sustain her and, perhaps, to excite her sexually. In contrast, "others" excluded from this privileged pairing seem deluded by such representations—or they may partake of a kind of freedom, outside the narrator's confinement.

Her relationship to her auditor-reader is troubled, for she simultaneously invites and distances, asks for help and insists on her separation. Stanza two reenacts a similar conflict between closeness and distance, freedom and circumscription:

Draw me a Robin—on a stem— So I am hearing him, I'll dream, And when the Orchards stop their tune— Put my pretense—away—

Like the picture of the sun, the representation of the "Robin" enables a moment of "pretense," of dubious "make believe," but this moment cannot adequately replace reality, concrete presence. Like Dickinson speaking to Susan, the narrator intimates her frightful desire for the world outside. Claiming to be a listener rather than a singer, the speaker ironically performs a process of reaching out, of trying to communicate without the screen of language; the sun and robin become a backdrop in the mime show between speaker, listener, and the absent-but-present "man of noon."

In the final stanza, the speaker asks not for a depiction, but for a verbal, perhaps even specifically oral representation of the "outside":

Say if it's really—warm at noon— Whether it's Buttercups—that "skim"— Or Butterflies—that "bloom"? Then—skip—the frost—upon the lea— And skip the Russet—on the tree— Let's play those—never come!

"Say if it's really—warm at noon," she insists (my italics). Her self-imposed distance from the outside world of "others" and of adulthood engenders confusion and the listener shares this confusion; language in a vacuum becomes transposed, as "Buttercups" "skim" and "Butterflies" "bloom." The last stanza suggests not an exclamation but a plea for help. Because we can have no ready answers, her final gesture is one of doubt. She underlines our role as playmate, but this connection is a subtly desperate one, for she frustrates our ability to change the terms of her perception of the world. Confronted by her request to outline the realities of noon—which must include a depiction of the adult woman's "confinement," especially when pregnant or "creative"—the feminine reader must be mute, choosing instead to share with her the child's confusion, her uncertainty about language and the drama it clothes, and her own circumscription. The poet's performance in the "man of noon" letter, with its enactment of desire (and its pleasure and confinement) and detachment (and its freedom and loss) echoes the conflict and ambivalence here. In both instances, we should not be surprised that she prefers the child's domain.

At its most extreme, the metonymie "you" does even more than gesture toward the poem as process, for it effectively prevents "meaning" as we ordinarily construe it. This process-oriented, anti-interpretive stance differs from that assumed by art which invites multiple interpretations, and it does not imply that her poems are hostile to the reader; rather, they are hospitable in the stringent demands they place upon us. A poem that Dickinson actually sent to Susan reveals the intensity and potential pain of the demands which a dialogical relationship between reader and speaker imposes:

He fumbles at your Soul As Players at the Keys Before they drop full Music on— He stuns you by degrees— Prepares your brittle Nature For the Etherial Blow By fainter Hammers—further heard— Then nearer—Then so slow Your Breath has time to straighten— Your Brain—to bubble Cool— Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt— That scalps your naked Soul— When Winds take Forests in their Paws— The Universe—is still—(Poem 315)

Line one introduces an unspecified masculine force. By not "identifying" him, however, the speaker in effect assumes that like Susan, her intimate other, we already "know" him. As Dickinson does in the "man of noon" letter, this speaker goes on to include us in a recreation of the protagonist's devastating violence, but here we are even more the object of this violence. If we choose to perceive the poem as an artifact, and to identify our task as providing a coherent and detached "interpretation," we falsify the very concrete and painful process—apparent particularly in line eleven, with its explosive dashes—in which we participate as we read; we normalize the poem's most troubling and most original quality.

This sense of poetry's danger and pain, a constant theme of Dickinson's, emerges vividly and concretely for the reader in an even less "accessible" poem which appears to enact the culturally-excluded experience of madness:23

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch, That nearer, every Day, Kept narrowing it's boiling Wheel Until the Agony Toyed coolly with the final inch Of your delirious Hem— And you dropt, lost, When something broke— And let you from a Dream— As if a Goblin with a Guage— Kept measuring the Hours— Until you felt your Second Weigh, helpless, in his Paws— And not a Sinew—stirred—could help, And sense was setting numb— When God—remembered—and the Fiend Let go, then, Overcome— As if your Sentence stood—pronounced— And you were frozen led From Dungeon's luxury of Doubt To Gibbets, and the Dead— And when the Film had stitched your eyes A Creature gasped "Repreive"! Which Anguish was the utterest—then— To perish, or to live?(Poem 414)

In "'Twas like a Maelstrom," Dickinson recreates the intensity of her own reading experience—here, indeed, is a poem capable of making its auditor feel frozen or sweltering. She invites, even requires, our complicity for its comprehension, and both her subject and her rhetoric contribute to the drama. The subject, ostensibly an experience of pain verging on madness, is one she might recount only to the closest of friends; like a letter to an intimate other, the poem-drama assumes a previously-established context within which speech can occur. We begin in the middle of things with the auditor's implied question in a dialogue: "What was it like?" Not only does the speaker omit the tenor of the metaphor, she compresses even a reference to it: '"Twas."

Furthermore, her ellipsis, and in particular her refusal to ground the metaphor, destabilizes the referential duality of metaphor and hence thrusts the responsibility of "meaning" toward the "you." She frees the "Maelstrom" (male storm?) to become a multiple and more terrifying figure, as it announces only intensity and process. Similarly, though "Agony" is one obvious association we might make with the maelstrom and the "boiling Wheel," we can't say whether it is identical to either one, or whether it results from their activity. The narrator underlines the immediacy of reading in her use of the imperfect tense ("Kept narrowing," "Kept measuring"), of the adverbs "Until" and "When," and of the narrative, conjunctive, metonymie "And."24 As the poem proceeds, our inability to synthesize, to abstract meaning and to "pronounce" a "Sentence"—to judge the poem—becomes even more painfully apparent.25

The poem resists an interpretation which gives it an extractable meaning because from a metonymie perspective, it doesn't "develop," it only includes, signaling pure context; and its principle of "coherence" is the intimate, troubling speaker-audience connection. Focusing on minutiae such as "with a notch" and "the final inch," it challenges our ability to synthesize them into a system of metaphor initiated by the "Maelstrom." Parodying "development," the speaker's language, not her status, is all that changes. Frustrating our desire to judge, to distance ourselves from the drama, the poem couples with us, but refuses to let us go, performing a frustrating and painful process of meaning. As with so many Dickinson poems, the ending suggests a brief sigh, an expiration of breath preceding an inevitable return to beginning again.26

Confronting the tendency to detach ourselves from the poetic experience, to define ourselves as "objective" outsiders, Dickinson also attempts to disable the artist's assumptions about a reader's role which may provoke this posture: that is, she transforms the traditionally feminine, passive, and inferior role which Trilling's masculine artist characteristically assigns to the reader. Refusing to regard us as inferior "others," she imagines an equality which enables and encourages the play of our imagination in the recreation of a poem-as-process.27 Readers' active role in the recreation of the poem endangers their self-integration and autonomy, for, no longer detached, judgmental, we may suffer and we may partake of the irrational. Dickinson echoes and enacts this danger in her own role as reader-victim. Feminine discourse—speech which invites and engages the other on equal terms—remains a balancing act for the feminine poet, who fears obliteration while she seeks interaction and closeness. "'Twas like a Maelstrom" expresses the poet's ambivalence because it welcomes and cautions the reader: it welcomes us to share an important experience; it urges us to beware the consequences of that sharing. Finally, it enacts the potential loss of selfhood which ensues for the feminine speaker if the other either comes too close or disappears, as it treads the margin between fear and need.

Intercourse with a reader, masculine or feminine, troubles and excites Dickinson. A letter to Dr. and Mrs. Holland expresses her dilemma clearly. Telling them a story of herself and a bird she has seen outside her window, she affirms, "My business is to love….'My business is to sing'" (Letter 269). Sometimes she evades the conflict between the traditional poetic self and femininity, becoming a child instead of an invaded adult female; sometimes she parodies the language of desire; sometimes she invites intimacy, imagining her listener as friend or confidante. Whatever perspective she chooses to assume, Dickinson imagines the reader-speaker relationship less often as Homans' "plotless and joyous intersubjectivity" and more often as a drama of complex and conflicting emotions whose climax is uncertain at best and potentially destructive at worst: "for none see God and live."

If we risk self-obliteration, Dickinson's feminine discourse offers a potential compensation: we enter the poem as creators, assigning a "meaning" which is located in a shared experience. The "loss" of selfhood entailed by this discourse affirms a kind of "transcendence."28 The poet accomplishes this affirmation, not by enabling us to "get outside of or to "escape" a self conceived of as autonomous and separate—to enter a "higher" and more "spiritual" realm—but, rather, by encouraging us to engage in the feminine process of expanding the boundaries of the self, of empathizing, of participating in Otherness. Dickinson explored this domain by writing her original and dangerous poems, and she invites us, with many cautions, to join her.


1 Dickinson's poems are identified according to the numbering in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard Univ. Press, 1955), here poems 435, 505, 1261; her letters are cited according to the numbering in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard Univ. Press, 1958).

2 For a definition of metonymy, see C. Carroll Hollis, Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass " (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 158, 177-178, 184, 189. I do not think that Dickinson's "you" is limited to a specific, literal "lover," the addressee of the "Master Letters." Nevertheless, in trying to specify the "you" in this way, William Shurr underlines what I call the characteristically intimate tone of the poems; The Marriage of Emily Dickinson (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1983), pp. 6ff., passim. On metonymy and intimacy, see Karen Kilcup Oakes, "Reading the Feminine: Gender Gestures in Poetic Voice," PhD. diss., Brandeis University, 1986. As implied by my claim of "intimacy," I imagine Dickinson's reader as singular (not collective). For a different view of audience, see Walter J. Ong, "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction," PMLA, 90 (1975), 9-21. Dickinson's "you" poems are not the only ones which encourage intimacy, but they highlight this connection; less explicit connections with the reader are the subject of another essay.

3 Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), p. 169; Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon, 1976), p. 83; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 70-71. Miller, Chodorow, and Gilligan emphasize the cultural foundations of their accounts of "feminine" and "masculine," and I would argue that these terms are not limited by the sex of the poet. Since the feminist psychologists' work focuses primarily if not exclusively on white, middle-class (and perhaps heterosexual) women, the interpretive theory which rests on such a foundation must be correspondingly limited.

4 Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson (New York: Knopf, 1986), p. 111. Wolff emphasizes Dickinson's search for "autonomy" (p. 127), as does Paula Bennett, who argues that the poet empowers her voice by ultimately rejecting her self-definition as child, choosing instead to be a self-authorized "bride," an adult woman who has the privilege without the sacrifice of marriage. Bennett's argument, which addresses itself to the work of Gilligan, Miller, and Chodorow, suggests a psychologically masculine construction of the poet and her development; Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), pp. 81, 94, and passim.

5 Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 97-102; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 548; 539-549, Chs. 1-2. See also Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), Chs. 1-2; Sharon Cameron, Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 23, 54, 135, 205; T. S. Eliot, "The Three Voices of Poetry," On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), pp. 89-102; David Bleich, "Gender Interests in Reading and Language," in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), p. 262; Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun, p. 3.

6 Judith Kegan Gardiner, "On Female Identity and Writing by Women," in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 185. Gardiner comments on the "processual" nature of female identity (pp. 179ff). The primary difficulty with Gardiner's theory is that it enforces sex, not gender difference; see Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "A Response to 'Writing and Sexual Difference,'" in Writing and Sexual Difference, pp. 295-296.

7 Patrocinio Schweickart, "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading," in Gender and Reading, p. 52. Schweickart contrasts this interaction with male readers' concern with "control" (pp. 36-37).

8 Homans, "'Oh Vision of Language!': Dickinson's Poems of Love and Death," in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, ed. Suzanne Juhasz (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 121, 124; "'Syllables of Velvet': Dickinson, Rossetti, and the Rhetorics of Sexuality" Feminist Studies, 11 (1985), 579-580. Homans sees the cultural basis of "feminine" and "masculine."

9 Hollis identifies the second person as metonymie (Language and Style, pp. 158, 164ff.). The degree of intimacy with the reader which a poetic speaker assumes depends upon how s/he defines both the "you" and the "I"; see Jonathan Culler, "Apostrophe," in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 135-154.

10 Gardiner, "On Female Identity," p. 179; Schweickart, "Reading Ourselves," pp. 45, 49, 51. Since feminine and masculine, metonymy and metaphor occupy a continuum, they may mesh or overlap.

Emile Benveniste suggests that while the third person refers to "an 'objective' situation," "you" resides solely in "a reality of discourse," and it "has no value except in the instance in which it is produced." In other words, the second person pronoun engenders immediacy and process. Benveniste, "The Nature of Pronouns," Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables: Univ. of Miami Press, 1971), pp. 221, 218. Interestingly, Benveniste points to the potential for the speaker's manipulation of the reader, his or her "appropriation." For an account of the relationship between narrative, chronology, and metonymy, see Roman Jakobson "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasie Disturbances," Selected Writings (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), II, 254-259.

11 On the relative privilege of metaphor, see Jakobson, Selected Writings, pp. 258-259; Jonathan Culler, "The Turns of Metaphor," in Pursuit, pp. 188-209; Culler, "Reading as a Woman," in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 43-64; David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), 110-111, 118, 214; Gerard Genette, "Rhetoric Restrained" in Figures of Literary Discourse, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 103-126; Hollis, Language and Style, pp. 202-203; Hugh Bredin, "Metonymy," Poetics Today, 5 (1984), 45-58; Barbara Johnson, "Metaphor, Metonymy, and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God," in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 157-158. While many of these writers debate the definition of metonymy, I am concerned with its effects. I do, however, assume with Jakobson that synecdoche is a form of metonymy; Selected Writings, pp. 255ff.

12 "'Oh Vision,'" p. 116. On Dickinson's metonymy, see also Cameron, Lyric Time, pp. 32-34; Agnieszka Salska, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: Poetry of the Central Consciousness (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1985). p. 189. On the potential intimacy of metaphor, see Ted Cohen, "Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy," in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 1-10.

13 Roland Hagenbüchle also emphasizes the role of metonymy in Dickinson's indeterminacy, while William Doreski emphasizes the poet's metaphoricity and the irrelevance of gender to her poetic project. Hagenbüchle, "Precision and Indeterminacy in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 20 (1974), 36, 47; Doreski, "'An Exchange of Territory': Dickinson's Fascicle 27," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 32 (1986), 55-56.

14 Schweickart, "Introduction" to Gender and Reading, ix-xii.

15 Cameron, Lyric Time, p. 188. Although Cameron distinguishes between letters and poems, arguing that the former have a prior context and the latter create a context, I am arguing that many of Dickinson's poems conjure a context which suggests this priority.

16 Dickinson's older contemporary, Lydia Sigourney, provides an interesting contrast; see Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Discus-Avon, 1977), p. 247.

17 Dickinson's ellipsis is not an extraordinary gesture for love poetry; what distinguishes her work is its fairly constant ambivalence, her desire and rejection of desire; she not only inverts but deconstructs the architecture of desire as Homans describes it. See '"Syllables,"' pp. 571ff. See also Poems 461, 640, 663, 1072.

18 "'Oh Vision,'" pp. 125-127. Bennett notes the connection between love and death in Dickinson, My Life, pp. 90-91.

19 In suggesting her own superiority, the speaker subverts an important poetic convention which Ellen Moers identifies: "In women's love poetry, just as in men's, the convention holds that the beloved must be placed high above the lover, a divine or royal object on a superior plane"; Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), p. 169. Moers also notes that women more often write "I-You" poetry, while she implies that men write "I-She" poetry pp. 167-168).

20 Poem 611 may represent a more positive view of the relationship after death or it may be another version of Poem 577.

21 Although she does not address the issue of reader-speaker relations directly, Adelaide Morris argues that Dickinson uses the same language to speak to lovers of both genders, but that she refers to different structures of love: with males, love is defined by "difference and hierarchy" and with females, it is defined by "similarity and equality" and "reciprocity"; Morris, "'The Love of Thee—a Prism Be': Men and Women in the Love Poetry of Emily Dickinson," in Juhasz, ed. Feminist Critics, pp. 102, 103.

22 See also Letters 31, 35, 45, 49, 173, 868—not to mention the "Master Letters."

23 See also Poems 264, 281, 286, 410, 806. Clearly, I'm not saying that all poems which we cannot understand are good on the basis of the "emotion" they convey; but I am saying that some poems are "good" in ways that are difficult to understand from an analytical perspective.

24 Hollis identifies "and" (parataxis) as a metonymie strategy (Language and Style, p. 159).

25 Karl Keller points out that Dickinson uses oxymoron to foreground and to question the reading process; Keller, The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979) pp. 129-130. Roy Harvey Pearce notes the creative role Dickinson demands of her reader; Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), p. 175, n. 18.

26 For the simultaneous closural and anti-closural effects of the concluding or rhetorical question, see Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 247-250; Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 9-13.

27 Robert Langbaum suggests that this mode of response is characteristic of the dramatic monologue. The difference between Langbaum's account and mine is that ultimately his reader makes a judgment, while Dickinson's often cannot; Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New York: Random House, 1957), pp. 94, 104ff., 204ff.

28 In contrast to Homans' Romantic transcendence; see Women Writers, p. 4.

Timothy Morris (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "The Development of Dickinson's Style," in On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd, Duke University Press, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1990, pp. 157-72.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1988, Morris contends that, contrary to the opinion of many critics, Dickinson's style did change and develop over time. Morris maintains that by measuring the rhyme and enjambment patterns of Dickinson's poetry, one can see that the "formal contours of her verse" evolved throughout her writing career.]

It has become a given of Dickinson criticism that the poet's style never changed. A recent study begins: "As more than one critic has observed, Emily Dickinson's poetry reaches its maturity almost immediately. Beginning with the verse valentine of 1850 (P-1), she is in full possession of the technical and thematic powers that distinguish her finest lyrics."1 Most critics in the last twenty years have accepted this view; several of the most distinguished writers on Dickinson agree that her style was unchanging, including Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg, David Porter, and Robert Weisbuch.2 The thesis that Dickinson's style never developed owes a great deal to Charles R. Anderson. In 1960 Anderson wrote: "The chronological arrangement of the new edition [Thomas H. Johnson's 1955 variorum] has been useful in minor ways, but not for selecting or ordering the poems. There are no marked periods in her career, no significant curve of development in her artistic powers, such as might furnish the central plan for a book on Milton or Yeats."3 Hence, Anderson arranged his readings by theme, an approach that has been followed by many of Dickinson's interpreters.

The thematic reading of Dickinson's poetry has produced a great deal of valuable and provocative criticism; it is not my purpose to argue with the fine readings of Mossberg and Weisbuch. or to undermine the method that led to those readings. But the development of Dickinson's style deserves more critical attention.

By measuring Dickinson's patterns of rhyme and enjambment, we can see that these formal contours of her verse changed over time, especially from 1858 to 1865. As Dickinson refined her verse technique, her approach to the subjects of her poems changed as well. But her poetry did not develop in the ways we are accustomed to see with poets whose work is published during their lifetimes and subjected to criticism and editorial advice.

Dickinson's poetic development consists mainly of two achievements that mark her work as unique and have established her as a great and difficult poet. First, she revised the hymn quatrain and made of it a more purely literary genre than it had ever been before. By "literary genre" I mean one where the work is intended to exist on the page alone and to be read silently. Dickinson's quatrain poems go even farther beyond the musical hymn of Isaac Watts than the literary ballad of Cowper, Coleridge and others goes beyond the sung ballad. Far from being constrained by her form or immured within the tradition of the hymn, she escaped that tradition completely, to the point where most of her poems no longer bear even a parodie or contrasting relationship to hymns.

Dickinson's second achievement is even more radical. In moving to her late manner she commented on her own texts, producing poems that were adaptations of earlier texts in her growing collection of manuscript fascicles. Having created a genre unique to her own work, she spent her career exploring and redefining that genre. Her reworkings of the subjects of her earlier poems show her concern with the interrelations between texts and with the effects of her own characteristic diction on her subjects. Her use of later poems to comment on earlier ones gives rise to those problems of interpretation that confront any reader of reworked material—except that here the poet is not adapting another's work but her own.

The most striking thing about Dickinson's work is that it is not directed outward. Although her letters teem with references to and talk about literature, there are hardly any uses in her poetry of the language of other poets. Even her few allusions to Shakespeare are mostly character names, except for "Mail from Tunis" in 1463, used for an impossibly long haul, as in The Tempest.4 One of her poems, 960—"Lay this Laurel on the One"—is an adaptation of T. W. Higginson's "Decoration." There is one possible use of Emerson (214), one of Percy Shelley (1620). Her only use of the language of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is in 449, "I died for Beauty—"; and it is a commonplace equation of Beauty and Truth which obviously owes at least as much to Keats, or to dozens of other poets.5 Criticism has traced powerful undercurrents of the influence of Dickinson's wide reading on her poetry, and of the implicit relation of her style to that of her precursors.6 But in the language of her poems, Dickinson never appropriated the language of another poet and never used the characteristic diction of a school or movement.

The state of Dickinson's surviving manuscripts confirms this picture of her as an inward-directed artist. There are no prose jottings on the construction of poems, no notebooks on art. We have no idea what her philosophy of composition was. We know that she revised carefully, sometimes taking great pains to find the right word.7 But she left no explicit clue to her crèative process. Her fair copies, bound into fascicles, are a vast and enigmatic book that has evoked many competing interpretations. But that book is not externally a record of artistic experiment. Aside from changes in handwriting over the years, the fascicles are uniform in presentation. They are featureless aside from the texts of the poems and variant readings recorded, without comment, by the poet herself.

But of course this very featurelessness of the fascicles is silent testimony to Dickinson's concern with the status of her texts. Many of the fair copies contain text alone. But the fair copies that contain variant readings are problematic. Johnson considers these manuscripts to be poems in "the semifinal stage"; the variants, carefully written at the end of each poem and keyed to crosses over the words in the poem's text, seemed to him to be suggested changes.8 This may be true; but it may just as well be true that Dickinson was preserving not future possibilities but stages in the composition of the poem, recording alternatives she had considered but rejected. Most semifinal drafts of a poet's work contain crossings-out and lists of alternatives; many of Dickinson's manuscripts are in this state. But the variants in the meticulously transcribed fair copies do not seem like intermediate draft alternatives but like part of the poet's attempt to preserve her own handwritten variorum edition. It is possible that the careful preservation of variants indicates great attention by Dickinson to versions of her poems and to the consequent refinements in diction that different versions entail.

The manuscript books offer a blank face in terms of the poet's own discussion of her poetics; but they do allow for the establishment of a chronology of Dickinson's poems from 1858 to 1865 (nearly all the fascicles are from these years). The chronology, in turn, can be used to show how Dickinson's use of rhyme and enjambment developed over time. The efforts of Johnson, Theodora Ward, and R. W. Franklin have established a sound, approximate dating of the fascicle poems.9

Table 1 presents this chronology. Only the years 1850-1865, the crucial ones for Dickinson's poetic development, are included.

1850-54 1-5
1858 6-57, 323, 1729-1730
1859 58-151, 216
1860 152-215, 318, 324
1861 217-298, 317, 319, 322, 325, 330, 687, 1737
1862 299-316, 320-321, 326-329, 332-432, 434-608, 610-664, 678, 683, 688, 712-717, 759-770, 1053, 1072, 1076, 1181, 1710, 1712, 1725, 1727, 1739
1863 665-677, 679-682, 684-686, 689-711, 718-758,771-807
1864 808-981, 1114
1865 433, 982-991, 993-1052, 1054-1066, 1070, 1073, 1177, 1540

The analysis of Dickinson's rhymes is made straight-forward by the conventionality of her poems in terms of meter and rhyme-scheme. She did write a small number of poems in a "free-rhyming" verse that rhymes erratically, with no regular meter or rhyme-scheme, and I have excluded those poems from this analysis.10 And of course some of her poems are fragmentary or in very rough drafts; these have also been excluded. But apart from these exceptions, all of her poems are in hymn stanzas and rhyme in one of the basic hymn rhyme-schemes: aab ccb or xaxa. Nearly all the places where rhyme would be expected in these poems have some type of rhyme; Dickinson wrote very little unrhymed or free verse (she approaches free verse only in 690 and in parts of 252, 253, 352, and 1720).

Eighty-eight percent of Dickinson's rhymes are of three phonetic types: exact, consonantal, and vowel rhymes.11 Exact rhyme is the most common type, as in 67:

Success is counted sweetest By those who ne'er succeed. To comprehend a nectar Requires sorest need. (Italics mine here and in the next two examples.)

Nearly as common is consonantal rhyme, where the final consonants, but not the preceding vowels, are identical:

One dignity delays for all— One mitred Afternoon— None can avoid this purple— None evade this Crown!(98)

Dickinson also frequently uses vowel rhyme, where any vowel rhymes with any other:

I stepped from Plank to Plank A slow and cautious way The Stars about my Head I felt About my Feet the Sea.(875)

Exact Consonantal Vowel
(The percentages given are of all rhymes in a given sample, and exclude less common types of rhyme, so totals are less than 100%.)12
1850-54 80.4 10.7
1858 68.1 14.4 7.5
1859 57.7 19.1 10.0
1860 45.5 25.8 13.4
1861 40.0 34.6 13.1
1862 34.5 33.8 17.2
1863 30.5 36.1 18.8
1864 28.3 35.5 17.5
1865 29.9 36.5 16.8

Table 2 shows the development of Dickinson's technique in terms of rhyme. For each year, the percentage of all rhymes is given for each of the three most common phonetic types. In her earliest surviving poems (1-5, from 1850-54) Dickinson uses mainly exact rhymes; the poems are Valentines, or bits of verse incorporated into letters, and are highly conventional in diction. By the time when she was first binding poems into fascicles, in 1858-59, she had developed a much less conventional rhyming technique. Unfortunately, we have no evidence about how she created these early fascicle poems; none of her manuscripts from the years 1855-57 survive. We see her now in the manuscripts, after four years of silence, as a poet who had broken with the conventional rhyming of her earliest verse.

After 1865, Dickinson wrote so little poetry that analysis of trends is not reliable. There are few fascicles from 1866 and after; most of the later poems survive in isolated copies and transcripts. Dickinson stopped her great outpouring of poetry in 1866, and the technique she had developed through so many hundreds of poems shows no strong growth in any direction thereafter.

Even more than her rhyme, Dickinson's characteristic enjambment is probably the one formal element that makes her quatrains sound so distinctive. Hymn quatrains are always end-stopped. The hymns of Watts, though they employ inexact rhyme, are entirely unenjambed. In performance, it would be intolerable for a syntactic phrase to be broken at the end of one stanza and picked up at the beginning of the next after an instrumental passage or chorus. But the quatrains of purely literary poems that are meant to be read silently or recited in a speaking voice need not be end-stopped. And in Dickinson's hands, the quatrain became a form meant to be read silently, similar in diction to that of the unenjambed couplets of Keats (as in "Sleep and Poetry") or Browning (Sordello or "My Last Duchess"). With their frequent inexact rhyme and their true syntactic verse paragraphs, Dickinson's quatrains are a new genre, one unique to her own poetry.

Table 3 shows how Dickinson's use of enjambment developed from her earliest verse until 1865. (The final quatrains of poems are not included, as it makes no sense to speak of them as being enjambed or not.)

percentage of enjambed quatrains
1850-54 5.6
1858 16.7
1859 14.6
1860 15.4
1861 20.4
1862 29.8
1863 27.1
1864 34.1
1865 36.7

Dickinson began by using conventional hymn-like endstopping. Her earliest poems are heavily end-stopped, and the first fascicle poems, in 1858-59, show only infrequent enjambment. But from 1860 to 1865, the amount of enjambment in her poetry grows steadily. By 1864, more than one-third of her quatrains are enjambed.

Dickinson used her later style, enjambed and using frequent inexact rhyme, to write adaptations of her earlier poems. The themes and subjects of these earlier poems reappear in the late style, but Dickinson adapts them by compressing or expanding the diction, changing the amount and nature of subordinate detail, and shifting—or often suppressing—key symbolic references.

Several readers have noticed compression in Dickinson's later poetry. George Frisbie Whicher discusses the condensation of the hummingbird poem "Within my Garden, rides a Bird" (500, dated 1862) into the famous "A Route of Evanescence" (1463, dated 1879).13 Richard B. Sewall notes the impact of the boiling-down of the nine-stanza "I watched the Moon around the House" (629, dated 1862) into the two-stanza "The Moon upon her fluent Route" (1528, dated 1881).14 The ultimate of this compressing process is what Gérard Genette calls haïkaïsation.15 No matter how far haïkaïsation goes, the central referent of the original text (hummingbird, moon) remains present in the rewritten text. And so, the essential element of what Genette calls the "hypotext," the original version, is still present in the "hypertext," the revised version.

But Dickinson did not always condense; she often chose more complex ways of adapting her earlier work. Particularly problematic is the kind of hypertext produced by what Genette calls demotivation.16 In this type of adaptation, the presence of the hypotext is absolutely necessary for the reading of the hypertext. There is no sense in which otiose material has been removed from the hypotext; or rather, the otiose and the essential are both removed, or essential material is replaced by new otiose material. In Flaubert's tale "Hérodias," Genette explains, the author retells the Biblical story. But he omits a vital part of the story, the crucial act of Hérodias that dooms John the Baptist. When adapting a Biblical story, Flaubert takes advantage of the fact that every reader knows the hypotext. But it is entirely possible for an author to practice demotivation of a text that is not well known, or that is unknown to every reader but herself; and this is what Dickinson does in reworking 72, "Glowing is her Bonnet" (about 1859), into 978, "It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon —" (about 1864). Here is the earlier poem:

Glowing is her Bonnet, Glowing is her Cheek, Glowing is her Kirtle, Yet she cannot speak. Better as the Daisy From the Summer hill Vanish unrecorded Save by tearful rill— Save by loving sunrise Looking for her face. Save by feet unnumbered Pausing at the place.

These quatrains are typical in form for an early Dickinson poem. They rhyme exactly, and the only enjambment comes between the second and third stanzas, at a break between paratactic phrases.

The first stanza establishes that someone is dead. It does so indirectly; but the central referent is clear. The following two stanzas express a preference for the way flowers die. The diction of the poem is characteristically Dickinson's, especially in its terse obliqueness; many of her early poems are terse and telegraphic in a similar way.

This early poem is marked strongly by the absence of tension. The poem, with its stock metrical phrases—"tearful rill," "loving sunrise"—and its conventional meter, rhyme, and end-stopping, is a metaphoric cliché. This is true despite Dickinson's metonymie evasiveness, her reluctance to name the central referents. And it is also clear that no amount of compression could complicate the poem much. In fact, not much compression is possible, given the poem's already small bounds.

In reworking the material of this poem, then, Dickinson elaborated rather than compressed it. But as she elaborated the detail and the rhetorical structure of the poem (by adding "I," in this case), and as she loosened the prosody by means of inexact rhyme and enjambment, she also removed the initial reference to a human death that motivates the consideration of the flower. The result is the demotivated text of 978.

It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon— The Flower—distinct and Red— I, passing, thought another Noon Another in its stead Will equal glow, and thought no More But came another Day To find the Species disappeared— The Same Locality— The Sun in place—no other fraud On Nature's perfect Sum— Had I but lingered Yesterday— Was my retrieveless blame— Much Flowers of this and further Zones Have perished in my Hands For seeking its Resemblance— But unapproached it stands— The single Flower of the Earth That I, in passing by Unconscious was—Great Nature's Face Passed infinite by Me—

In contrast to 72, 978 contains all the features of Dickinson's later style. In the variation of rhyme and enjambment and in its verse-paragraphing, the poem avoids the stock phrases that fill out 72.

Poem 72 compares a human death and the death of a flower; 978 expands on the death of the flower and removes the human death altogether. Dickinson expands the terseness of the narrative detail in the earlier poem; "Vanish unrecorded" becomes "came another Day / To find the Species disappeared—/ The Same Locality—/ The Sun in place—no other fraud / On Nature's perfect Sum—." But no similar refinement is applied to the first stanza of 72. It is simply dropped. The result of this demotivation is to throw great emphasis on the disappearance of the flower, and to demand a symbolic referent for it. But the poem refuses to associate the flower with anything else. The extremity of the speaker's emotions becomes extremely puzzling: "retrieveless blame" and "Great Nature's Face / Passed infinite by me" suggest a psychological depth that the literal situation doesn't call for. The reader is left wondering what so extreme an emotion could be evoked by, and what the hidden connection between the flower and the unknown symbolic referent could be. One is led, when reading such a poem, to a state of presque vu about the poet's intentions and private associations. The powerful suggestiveness of the poem results from its being a demotivation of a hypotext that was more explicit about these associations.

Over the course of Dickinson's career, she returned again and again to the basic themes that figure in her early poems—hence the observation by many critics that her subject matter remained static. But while the early poems tend to be simply descriptive or to present stock conclusions (even when they are paradoxical or ironic stock conclusions), the later poems employ compression, or demotivation, or a shift in symbolic direction, to cause problems of interpretation. Dickinson's later style demands that the intricacy of her early hymn-like poems be doubled back on itself to produce a problem of interpretation every time the poem is read. The style in itself becomes the argument. This pattern can be observed in the large clusters of poems on death, marriage, loneliness, and other subjects; one small cluster of poems that shows it well is on Indian Summer, the period of warm weather after the first frost. Dickinson's first Indian Summer poem is 130:

These are the days when Birds come back— A very few—a Bird or two— To take a backward look. These are the days when skies resume The old—old sophistries of June— A blue and gold mistake. Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee— Almost thy plausibility Induces my belief. Till ranks of seeds their witness bear— And softly thro' the altered air Hurries a timid leaf. Oh Sacrament of summer days, Oh Last Communion in the Haze— Permit a child to join. The sacred emblems to partake— Thy consecrated bread to take And thine immortal wine!

The poem is far from being a simple appreciation of the season. Even though the final stanza seems like an ecstatic acceptance of Indian Summer, the poem is, centrally, ambiguous. Indian Summer is a "Sacrament," but it is also a "fraud" and a "mistake": it is a repetition of the "sophistries of June." And if June itself, the real summer, is full of sophistries, a false June must be even falser. The speaker seems weary of the summer itself, because it is necessarily transient, and even wearier of the final deceit of the Indian Summer.

And yet, paradoxically, the speaker regains her faith at the very moment when she is made certain that the false summer is false: when "ranks of seeds their witness bear." Now that the season has stopped pretending to be anything other than summer's last gasp, she is ready to participate, and the poem slips into the devotional language of the last two stanzas. Or maybe it doesn't; maybe the last two stanzas are a satire on a type of attitude toward faith that embraces faith despite a deep-rooted skepticism. This satiric logic is papered over by the end-stopped hymn stanzas and the light tone. The satirical level is there, but it remains smirking, not serious; mock-devotional, not anti-devotional. Above all, the poem does not confront the problem of faith. It poses outside the problem, and we can either appreciate or reject that pose, but not engage it in an argument.

Poem 130 was written about 1859. Five years later, Dickinson returned to the theme of Indian Summer to write a more problematic poem, 930:

There is a June when Corn is cut And Roses in the Seed— A Summer briefer than the first But tenderer indeed As should a Face supposed the Grave's Emerge a single Noon In the Vermillion that it wore Affect us, and return— Two Seasons, it is said, exist— The Summer of the Just, And this of Ours, diversified With Prospect, and with Frost— May not our Second with its First So infinite compare That We but recollect the one The other to prefer?

The problems of interpretation in this poem come from its piling up of comparisons, comparisons that at each level embody paradoxes. The enjambment from the first stanza to the second makes the first comparison, between Indian Summer and the brief reappearance of someone buried. Indian Summer itself is presented paradoxically, as a "June when Corn is cut," instead of simply as "the days when Birds come back." And the season is not merely accused of sophistry, as in 130; it is directly compared to an experience that is impossible: someone coming back from the dead not as a ghost but "in the Vermillion," in the flesh. Most similes present the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, but this one presents the familiar in terms of the impossible. In the third stanza, Indian Summer, in its impossible beauty, is compared to the bliss of heaven, the "Summer of the Just." Which is better? The fourth stanza should tell us, but it doesn't quite manage to; its syntax is as baffling as anything Dickinson ever wrote. "Our Second" is Indian Summer, and "its First" is heaven, but which of these is "the other" that we have recollected "the one" to prefer?

The answer, I think, lies not in any internal evidence, but in an echo of 130 that the whole situation of 930 brings to mind. Remember that both June and Indian Summer in the earlier poem are accused of "sophistries," in an offhand way that the speaker does not elaborate. The speaker instead drifts into a formulaic appreciation of the season she has accused. Here in 930, though, the sophistry is examined and explained. The reappearance of someone buried in the second stanza is, of course, only humanly impossible; there is a notable example of it, beyond human power, in the Resurrection. And we are certainly reminded of the Resurrection in the second stanza, because the very impossibility of the simile demands it. After the end-stopping at the end of the second stanza, the poem picks up the same comparison that it made in that second stanza, because the Resurrection and the "Summer of the Just" are, after all, identical. The Resurrection defeated death and made this summer that is not "diversified" possible.

So when we "recollect the one," we are recollecting that Resurrection and its promise of eternal summer. But we are preferring "the other," the Indian Summer that so paradoxically can only be appreciated because it is false—palpably, not metaphysically, false. Poem 930, welded together out of a tremendous tension of style and symbol, is a rejection of the whole mystery of immortality in favor of a confidence trick by Nature that seems honest in comparison. But the poet is not merely expounding a position here; she is arriving at it by the process of adapting an earlier text. In another poem or set of poems she may very well—she certainly did—arrive at other conclusions about Christ and about immortality. But here, she takes what is only hinted at in the contradictions of 130, and by pressing those contradictions to their limit, she arrives at the agonizing puzzle of 930.

Dickinson continued to rework the theme of Indian Summer, and her 1364, written about 1876, is a late haïkaïsation of the subject. As in many of these extremely compressed poems, the central term has become enigmatic:

How know it from a Summer's Day? Its Fervors are as firm— And nothing in its Countenance But scintillates the same— Yet Birds examine it and flee— And Vans without a name Inspect the Admonition And sunder as they came—

The first five lines of the poem are a simple compression of Dickinson's earlier descriptions of Indian Summer. The speaker knows that it is not summer; the only difficulty is in proving it, and this is accomplished by noting that the birds aren't fooled. (In 130, the proof was the "ranks of seeds." Also in that poem, it was the bees, not the birds, that couldn't be fooled; but bees actually are very active on warm autumn days, perhaps leading Dickinson to drop that element of the treatment.) The problem of the poem lies in lines 6-8. "Vans without a name" is an impossibly obscure phrase, and deliberately so. These Vans are only named by their lack of a name, and their only action in the poem is to refuse to appear in it. They might be insects; the vaguely visual evocation of them makes them "look" like insects; but why would insects lack a name when birds are given one? As they appear, nameless, almost in the poem, they are spiritual presences of some sort, hovering on the edge of the poem's consciousness. Their sundering, in the last line, is a melting into silence of all the sarcasm and anguish that surrounded Indian Summer in 130 and 930, 1364 is eerier and more cryptic than either of its predecessors.

The Indian Summer poems chart, in miniature, the development of Dickinson's style, from something resembling a hymn, at least in formal outline, to a far more individual treatment of the same subjects, made possible by inexact rhyme, enjambment, verse-paragraphing, haïkaïsation, demotivation—in general, by a ceaseless reworking of the one book that meant more to Dickinson than any other, even the Bible: the book of her own poetry. R. P. Blackmur accused Dickinson of "revolving in a vacuum" when she wrote her unconventional verse, and the accusation is true.17 She never adopted conventional technique, but started very early with something idiosyncratic and then revised her own idiosyncrasies. Probably it is fortunate that she did, as she was led to complicate rather than to polish her early work. An editor would have noted very early on that she had gotten the bees and birds mixed up in 130, and while she was smoothing that out, she might never have composed 930.

Picasso is supposed to have said that he didn't care who influenced him, so long as he didn't influence himself. Dickinson proceeded oppositely; she was vigorously anti-eclectic. This leads to the difficulty of considering her work as a single integrated corpus. In the Indian Summer poems, Dickinson certainly has her earlier poems—carefully preserved in the fascicles—in mind as a context for the later ones. But for other sequences of poems, such as the many that affirm faith and immortality, her manuscript books provide different contexts. It is customary to think of lyric poems as being strictly independent utterances, or as being elements in a narrative or meditative sequence. But Dickinson's fascicles are neither. The logic of clusters on different themes—or even, sometimes, of different poems within a cluster on the same theme—develops in different directions. When interpreters attempt to capture her thought on a given subject by referring to poems written over a twenty-five-year period, they are not proceeding incorrectly—very often there is no other way to proceed if we want to make sense of Dickinson—but they are compiling provisional indexes to what was still, in its final "edition," very much a work in progress.

So was Leaves of Grass, of course, but the difference is that Dickinson was not making a book for anyone but herself. Her work is inward-directed to a unique extent, and not just in its lack of appropriation of the language of others and in her lack of interest in publication. The most distinctive thing about her poetry is, finally, the intensely problematic nature of her painstaking and often enigmatic adaptation of her private texts.


1 Douglas Anderson, "Presence and Place in Emily Dickinson's Poetry," New England Quarterly, 57 (1984), 205.

2 See Mossberg, Emily Dickinson: When a Writer Is a Daughter (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982); Porter, Dickinson: The Modern Idiom (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981); Weisbuch, Emily Dickinson's Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975).

3Emily Dickinson 's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960), p. xii.

4 All quotations from Dickinson's poetry are from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1955). They are referred to by the numbers given them in that edition.

5 See Jack L. Capps, Emily Dickinson's Reading: 1836-1886 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 147-88.

6 See Joanne Feit Diehl, Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), which treats Dickinson's responses to her major Romantic precursors; Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley, Cal.: North Atlantic Press, 1985), which examines far-reaching networks of associations between Dickinson's reading and her poetry; A. R. C. Finch, "Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes," PMLA, 102 (1987), 166-76, looks at Dickinson's choice of the quartrain in relation to the tradition of pentameter in English verse.

7 See Poems, I, xxxiii-xxxviii.

8Poems, I, xxxiii.

9 The chronology of Dickinson's poems is from Poems with corrections from The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981).

10 See Timothy Morris, "The Free-Rhyming Poetry of Emerson and Dickinson," Essays in Literature, 12 (1985), 225-40.

11 Of 4,840 rhymes in Dickinson's poems, 2,006 (41.4%) are exact (of the type see/me, 1732); 167 (3.5%) pair a vowel with a reduced version of itself (me/immortality, 712); 80 (1.6%) are assonantal (breath/quench, 422); 731 (15.1%) are vowel (blew/sky, 354); 1,535 (31.7%) are consonantal (mean/sun, 411); 164 (3.4%) pair a consonant with a cluster containing that consonant (night/erect, 419); 23 pair a cluster with another cluster that shares one consonant with it (disclosed/blind, 761); 2 rhyme a cluster with the same cluster reversed (used/birds, 430); 84 (1.7%) rhyme one nasal consonant with another (thing/begun, 565); 20 rhyme one fricative with another (breeze/divorce, 896); 2 rhyme one voiced stop with another (sob/wood, 45); 5 rhyme one unvoiced stop with another (frock/night, 584); 21 rhyme-positions show less close approximations to exact rhyme, and cannot be considered rhyme at all (for instance, blaze/forge in 365).

12 I have not found it worthwhile to give a fascicle-by-fascicle analysis of Dickinson's rhymes. The broad trends of the change in her style do show, of course, in such an analysis: for example, she uses 78.1% exact rhyme in Fascicle 1 and only 24.3% exact rhyme in Fascicle 24. But the trend would only be obscured by noting the very small variations from fascicle to fascicle. The dating of the fascicles can never be precise enough to permit statements about development over very brief intervals of time anyway; the year-by-year dating shows Dickinson's stylistic development in general terms, which is my aim here.

13This Was a Poet (New York: Scribners, 1939), p. 262.

14The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974), I, 240-43.

15Palimpsestes (Paris: Seuil, 1982), chap. 9.

16 "Demotivation in Hérodias," in Flaubert and Postmodernism, ed. Naomi Sekori and Henry F. Majewski (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 192-201. Trans. Marlena Corcoran.

17 "Emily Dickinson: Notes on Prejudice and Fact," Southern Review, 3 (1937), 323-47.

Alice Fulton (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12958

SOURCE: "Her Moment of Brocade: The Reconstruction of Emily Dickinson," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1989, pp. 9-44.

[In the following essay, Fulton contends that while Dickinson is acknowledged as a premier American poet, there remains a resistance among critics to a "Dickinsonian tradition in American letters." Fulton explores the possible reasons for this resistance and notes that when Dickinson is judged by the criteria derived from the work of other major poets and movements, her unique accomplishments, particularly in the area of language, are overlooked.]

The way Hope builds his House It is not with a sill— Nor Rafter—has Mars— But only Pinnacle—(1481, variant version)

The following bit of apocryphal gossip made the rounds of writers' conferences last summer: Two well-known poets stand at a podium, both of them in their fifties. One waits to read her poems; the other to introduce her. The poet who'll read wears a fifties circle skirt to which a large felt poodle is appliquéd. Her introducer, a short heavy woman, is dressed in paisley jodhpurs and a jeweled sweater. In the audience an up-and-coming man poet1 of a younger generation shifts restlessly in his chair. (The fashion report on him is never given.) Leaning toward the man beside him, he whispers "Debutantes from Mars." Hearing this story, I imagined a third figure flickering behind the lectern: a middle-aged woman in a long, button-fronted, kick-pleated white shift resembling a nightgown. If the audience could see this specter, they'd recognize the template of the female poet as alien invader: Emily Dickinson. Would a poet of her genius and gender receive more respectful attention today than the two women of my anecdote? Moreover, might this snippet, with its emphasis on couture, girlishness, Otherness, illuminate the resistance to a Dickinsonian tradition in American letters?

Of course, Dickinson is a canonical writer. Among scholars and general readers, her eminence is taken for granted. But who among contemporary poets has been placed within a Dickinsonian context? Where are her heirs? Essays and reviews of twentieth-century poets frequently point to Whitman as influence or forebear. The Beat poets, among others, are construed as his descendants. Yet it's hard to think of any criticism that places a man poet within a primarily Dickinsonian orbit, although she's often mentioned in passing. (The problems for female poets are different, and I'll come to them.) Perhaps the resistance to a Dickinsonian linkage or lineage has its basis in the patriarchal assumptions and cultural insecurities surrounding gender. Americans tend to view poetry writing as an unmanly or "feminine" vocation. That "feminine" has associations of weakness or unworthiness in the common mind says a great deal about this culture's unspoken assumptions. In her perceptive book Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets, Lisa M. Steinman quotes Williams in 1949 as saying "We seldom think of … poetic structure, as we do of engineering: a field of action worthy of masculine attack." Note the martial language with which he describes his ideal enterprise. It implies that poetry, properly regarded, is a combative activity. This attitude is with us still. How could the women of my opening anecdote, those flaky fluttery Others, endow literary kin with a seminal aura "worthy of masculine attack"? If literature is warfare, men need robust father figures to defend, shield, authorize, and sequester their enterprise. Although female poets are sometimes compared to Dickinson, the comparison serves to underscore eccentricity rather than brilliance.

I said that Dickinson's eminence is taken for granted. I must add that her status is also resented. As part of a recent symposium in The Texas Review2 called "Nominations for Oblivion," novelist Robert Bausch wrote, "No imagination could possibly wish to construct so many silly rhymes with the same rhythmical pattern except one that has been stilted by some sort of oddly imposed and intractable virginity. The only reason people are forced to study Emily Dickinson in American universities is that she is female and in these days of socially relevant education teachers have to include a woman somewhere. Imagine how disappointed everybody's going to be when critics and scholars return to their senses and discover that Emily Dickinson's poetry is nothing less than something less than nothing at all…. It leaves me feeling as though I have been trampled by a McDonald's advertisement." I'm glad that Bausch published the above sentiment because most Dickinson-bashing takes place in private conversations. Since the symposium is presented as "satire, intended for fun," one is asked to believe that Bausch's comment (I've quoted only a fraction of his spleen-venting) has no meaning, subtext, or effect. Like the "Debutantes from Mars" anecdote, Bausch's words hide damaging premises behind a pretense of wit and ask for our laughing complicity. Anyone who detects hostility in such "fun" is a spoilsport. I'm not saying we can't have Dickinson jokes, but we have to acknowledge that humor has latent meanings and that those meanings can be sexist, racist, or just plain dumb.

Bausch's mention of "intractable virginity" shows that his knowledge of Dickinson begins and ends in superficial stereotypes. Such mythology began to take shape within Dickinson's lifetime, and there's been an undue emphasis on her biography ever since. The legend no doubt helps explain why students, writers, and readers often speak of "Emily" as if they held frequent tête-à-têtes with her. Perhaps the spurious intimacy she evokes encourages this fatuous address. But the poetry and biography of Keats provide equally fertile ground for identification and empathy. And who ever thinks of him as John? Referring to writers by their first names signals familiarity, and we know what that breeds; it also undermines the writer's authority. Ultimately it's a reductive address, a means of conferring minion status upon one who would be Queen. With this in mind, I'll refer to "Emily" only when discussing her within the context of her family, those other Dickinsons.

The Dickinson of popular mythology is an ingenuous sufferer whose lonely life of seclusion results from a mysterious unrequited love (hence her "intractable virginity"). She is a naive folk artist lacking an ars poetica or tradition, which of itself consigns her to eccentricity. Her genius, when conceded, is said to be anomalous: She will have no literary heirs because her accomplishment is too wayward for assimilation. Recent studies of Dickinson work against some of these tired notions. One can't, however, dismantle clichés so firmly entrenched in the collective imagination by publishing scholarly books. And in trying to dismantle The Myth, scholarship has produced new, sometimes more fantastic legends. The recombinant Emily Dickinson who emerges from these disparate opinions resembles Joanne Woodward playing The Three Faces of Eve. She is the nun; the heretic; the psychotic; the anorexic; the agoraphobe; even the unwed mother. In trying to counteract a phallocentric bias, feminist readings have turned the simpering flower into Fury; the jilted spinster into thwarted lesbian. Even those who knew Emily Dickinson were often mystified or fooled. According to Austin, his sister posed in her letters to Higginson. And she must have stayed in character for their single face-to-face meeting, a coming-out party for the interplanetary ingenue, if we can believe Higginson's description of a whispery, intense, "half-cracked poetess." Given all this, it's tempting to view the poet as an actress, her lyric "I" a form of dramatic monologue. Whitman's self-descriptive lines apply: She is large. She contains multitudes.

In fact, Dickinson's current standing has nothing to do with her education (which was rigorous and wide-ranging), her own influences (which were diverse), her absence of an aesthetics (available in her poetry and letters as surely as in those of Keats), her method (again comparable to Keats), or her writing (which is anomalous only in its extraordinary achievement). The historical Dickinson is irretrievable. We are left with our fantasies, which say as much about us as her. In poem 526 she reminds us of our intractable subjectivity:

To hear an Oriole sing May be a common thing— Or only a divine. It is not of the Bird Who sings the same, unheard, As unto Crowd— The Fashion of the Ear Attireth that it hear In Dun, or fair— So whether it be Rune, Or whether it be none Is of within. The "Tune is in the Tree—" The Skeptic—showeth me— "No Sir! In Thee!"

The observer alters what's observed; a poet's reception depends upon "The Fashion of the Ear." The listener (reader) determines whether poetry is magical script ("Rune"), failure (ruin), or "none." The last fate is reserved for work that remains unread, consigned to absence. We, the current audience, create and alter a poet's standing. The Martha Graham Dance Company, in their recent production of "Letter to the World," cast the glamorous Kathleen Turner as Dickinson. Why do we insist upon her being Belle of Amherst? Perhaps it's because a nubile woman who writes poetry is a pretty concept. She may adore her older male teachers and pose no threat. But what if she continues to develop as an artist, devoting the main portion of her life and energies to her writing? What happens to the female poet too mature to be called "promising," too well known to be "emerging?" There's a good chance she'll become an object of scorn, the butt of jokes like the one at the beginning of this essay. Little will be written about her work. Her poems may go out of print, as Marianne Moore's did during the seventies. Whenever older female poets read for my classes, students are surprised that women their mother's age can write about ideas, including sexuality and politics, without trotting out tuna-casserole platitudes. Some of the young men seem amazed that such women can think at all! Their reports dwell upon the poet's matronly appearance that belies (to their minds) the shocking (to their minds) content of the poems. "I'd expected a much younger woman," they write. In contrast, men poets of comparable age are said to be "distinguished," as if they embodied the debonair charm of aging movie stars.

Of course, some brilliant men poets also suffer neglect.3 But so few women have been accorded major status that one must connect their gender with their disenfranchisement. Most significant awards still go to men. Whether the recipients of the accolades are more deserving, more gifted, than their less fortunate brothers isn't the point. Their sisters aren't in the running at all. "What about Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove?" Lest we confuse tokenism with equity, consider the following facts: MacArthur Fellowships have been awarded to sixteen poets, one of whom is female. The Literature Department of the American Academy of Arts and Letters includes approximately thirty poets, six of them women. Seven members of the Academy are poets, none of them women. The twelve-member board of Chancellors of The Academy of American Poets includes two women. Either there are very few significant female poets, or else such poets suffer discrimination. One must remind oneself that women are not a minority. On the contrary, women's writing is majority writing, both in the sense of numbers and in coming of age. Yet the evidence suggests that most people still want their great poets to be men. Such a cultural climate affects the reception of Dickinson's work as surely as it does that of contemporary poets. She worried that her poetry would be seen as "the only Kangaroo among the Beauty." "It afflicts me," she wrote Higginson. And how do we see her? As a wonderful yet anomalous presence, given to unexpected leaps, equipped with bizarre pockets, comic as a cartoon, powerful as a boxer—great, yes, but aberrant, Other: kangarooish!

Ironically, it was patriarchy that afforded Dickinson the time to write and think. Male dominance as practiced in Victorian Amherst became for her both enablement and disablement, protection and prison. The word patriarchy provokes extreme reactions, perhaps because people are unsure what's meant by the term. I offer Webster's definition: "a: social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or the family in both domestic and religious functions, the legal dependence of wife or wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line, b: a society so organized." In nineteenth-century Amherst, females of Dickinson's economic class were not expected to be self-supporting. Her father's social standing and wealth saved her from the grim jobs available to women: factory work or the middle-class option of teaching school. There's little doubt that Edward Dickinson ruled supreme within his family, and his possessiveness is said to have discouraged his daughters' suitors. If so, this might have been a disguised blessing for Emily. In the 1800s, women married for financial security (which she already had), companionship (which she found in Austin and Lavinia), and children (although many women did not regard pregnancy as a desirable aspect of matrimony).

A little reading on the development of obstetrics convinces one—and it is an astounding knowledge—of the overwhelming dread with which women historically viewed childbirth. The silence and neglect surrounding this formidably central province of human experience encourages us to misunderstand any American women born before 1930—including Emily Dickinson. We have forgotten that until recently childbirth was woman's heroic sphere. As such, it provided a more frequent and dependably excruciating trial than man's transcendent analogue of war. Contraception was limited and seldom practiced; anaesthetics (chloroform and laudanum) were unreliable and sometimes unavailable; doctors were just beginning to attend births, and their lack of experience and ignorance of bacteria made their presence more risk than boon. Judith Leavitt, in Brought to Bed, writes, "Women knew that if procreation did not kill them, it could maim them for life." Children aside, a married woman of Dickinson's social standing was expected to oversee the details of an elaborate household and play hostess to her husband's business associates, tasks that would leave little time for the writing of 1775 poems. All in all, the realities of marriage might have seemed less attractive to Dickinson than the relationships she inhabited through writing.

Of all the forms of male dominance, perhaps the most evident to Dickinson was patrilineage, "the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line." Her domineering father accorded Austin, his son and heir, immense respect as his birthright. Dickinson undoubtedly loved her brother. Yet she might have felt some chagrin at hearing their father declare Austin's letters "altogether before Shakespeare" while her own great talents went unremarked. Indeed, Mr. Dickinson was so taken by his son's letters that he wished "to have them published to put in our library." Here's how Emily reacted to the family's designated genius in 1853: "And Austin is a Poet, Austin writes a psalm. Out of the way, Pegasus, Olympus enough 'to him,' and just say to those 'nine muses' that we have done with them! Raised a living muse ourselves, worth the whole nine of them…. Now, Brother Pegasus, I'll tell you what it is—I've been in the habit myself of writing some few things, and it rather appears to me that you're getting away my patent, so you'd better be somewhat careful…. " By 1866, her sense of poetic mastery extended beyond the household competition. In a letter describing the March weather she wrote, "Here is the 'light' the Stranger said 'was not on land or sea.' Myself could arrest it but we'll not chagrin Him." The quote is from Wordsworth's Elegiac Stanzas.

As a cultural norm, patrilineage is responsible for the most destructive prejudice surrounding Emily Dickinson: the view that she is a curiosity of American literature. Patrilineage means all children must receive their father's surname as a means of creating identity, order, legacy, and connection. A child who receives a mother's name is a bastard. The pervasiveness of this view makes it difficult for us to imagine women as creators of dynasties—be they familial, financial, or literary. Since lineage must pass from father to son, Dickinson cannot offer legitimacy to her successors. Unable to envision her as progenitor, critics and scholars regard her work as too eccentric to exert broad influence. The same prejudices apply to Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and all poets who are women. They are our perennial spinsters, deprived of issue and succession.

In fact, Dickinson is not without her descendants, but they are the heirs unapparent: favored sons who have been awarded steadier pedigrees, or orphaned females sans geneology. A. R. Ammons, for example, should be recognized as a great scion of Dickinson. Ammons's pervasively used colon is analogous to the Dickinsonian dash; his subjects are hers; his abstract vocabulary draws upon her matrix—from sphere to difference. His process of writing is comparable, as is the sheer amount of poetry he has produced. Yet the comment accompanying his National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981 summarizes the way his work has been read: "He is a poet of the American Sublime … standing in the tradition of Wordsworth, Emerson, and Whitman." Apparently Dickinson is not part of "the American Sublime." Although Ammons studied with the late Josephine Miles, her possible influence upon his work is never mentioned. Being female, she is unable to confer legitimacy. Miles herself shows a Dickinsonian influence in the ontological questioning, colloquial ease, and abstract vocabulary of many poems.

Dickinson's influence makes itself felt in the stropped language of Robert Creeley; the head-spinning intelligence and atomized linguistic sparks of Heather McHugh; the wickedly unconventional wit, philosophical teasing, and subtle explorations of gender perfected by Phyllis Janowitz; the delight in formal experiment, passion for the natural world, and vernacular charm of May Swenson; the religious sensibility of Denise Levertov. The work of Charles Simic, with its spacious leaps, honed syntax, and decocted folklore is also kin. When I mentioned this consanguinity, Mr. Simic wrote, "Dickinson is the poet who means more and more to me as the years pass…. Her poems think as they unfold—that's my dream! My hope is to understand her great art before I die." When I jokingly suggested that his line stemmed from "the seldom-mentioned Serbian side" of her family, Simic offered the following geneology: "I believe they were Russian. Came out of Dostoyevsky's rooming house for poor students. A family of anarchists who kept their children out of school. Taught them themselves. They read so much they all wore thick glasses by the time they were four years old. When they came to America they opened a delicatessen in Springfield, Massachusetts. Miss Emily used to go there on the q.t. for gherkins. She thought she was pregnant. She was! With theology, poetry, and philosophy." Simic's imagined history places the poet within a context of intelligent rebellion (anarchists, thick glasses) while affectionately crediting her creative fertility.

For myself, I continue to learn from Dickinson's genius with abstraction; the manyness rather than singleness of her imagery; the pronouns enlarged by slippery antecedents; the variety one can achieve in prosody. In this age of conservative formalism, when every other poem one reads is in the major of blank verse, Dickinson reminds me of the countless tones and keys at my disposal. Her poems show the heady brilliance of successful experiment. They convince me of the value and possibility of delineating inner states so subtle as to be almost subconscious. The volume and quality of her accomplishment instill a faith that language is both unbounded and mine: an infinite resource, limited only by my limitations. Her life teaches American poets to keep their eyes on the luminous, infinite sphere of language rather than the bouncing ball of regular iambs or the gold ring of poe-biz acclaim. Her poems prove that one can embrace complication without forfeiting the reader's pleasure.

Dickinson's fame began in 1890 with the publication of Bolts of Melody. The public adored the book, which went into multiple printings. Mabel Loomis Todd (with the help of Thomas Higginson) took on the monumental task of selection and editing. Their attempts to normalize meter, rhyme, and punctuation, along with their choice of the more conventional poems, made Dickinson palatable at a time when her experiments would have met with befuddlement. Although her work found a popular audience, serious acclaim was slow to come. The Atlantic Monthly stated that "an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village—or anywhere else—cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar …. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighbor-hood." The adjectives in that first sentence live on in Dickinson mythology, along with the tendency to anthologize her least ambitious work.

Given its high degree of indeterminacy and plurality, Dickinson's most complex poetry is best suited to a postmodernist age. New literary theories and contemporary science offer ways of constructing reality that help us appreciate poems previously consigned to the periphery. Yet in trying to represent Dickinson's essential canon, The Norton Anthology of Poetry (third edition) prizes the simple, the plain, the ecstatic, the erotic, the natural, and the macabre, all traits of a romantic disposition. More cerebral, disjunctive, and ambiguous poems are excluded. Of course, many of the anthology chestnuts number among Dickinson's great works. But poem 449, for example, expresses conventional nineteenth-century sentiments in fairly conventional style. It comes as close to being a set piece as anything Dickinson ever wrote.

I died for Beauty—but was scarce Adjusted in the Tomb When One who died for Truth was lain In an adjoining Room— He questioned softly "Why I failed?" "For Beauty," I replied— "And I—for Truth—Themself are One— We Brethren, are," He said— And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night— We talked between the Rooms— Until the Moss had reached our lips— And covered up—our names—

This poem owes so much to Keats's Grecian Urn that I can never read it without envisioning him as the One interred beside the speaker. At least the poem contains a few Dickinsonian grace notes. The extra comma in line eight ("'We Brethren, are,' He said—"); the coupling of singular and plural within one noun ("Themself" rather than the "Themselves" in line seven); and the hypotaxic syntax (three of the last six lines begin with "And") distinguish it, though marginally, from brand X Victorian verse. "The Bustle in a House" (1078), another favorite of anthologists, voices its platitudes in unremarkable language:

The Bustle in a House The Morning after Death Is solemnest of industries Enacted upon Earth— The Sweeping up the Heart And putting Love away We shall not want to use again Until Eternity.

The pun on morning, the deletion of function words in lines three and five, and the metrical stress that underscores and isolates each syllable of the final word, "Eternity"—such stylistic oddities are Dickinson's signature. But these devices appear throughout her work. This poem differs from hundreds of other Dickinson poems in three ways: It is plainer in style, it is simpler in syntax, and it draws upon one central metaphor (housewifery) rather than melding two or more images into one new emotional nexus. As a result, it's an easy poem to grasp on a first reading. In fact, many of Dickinson's anthology poems seem to be chosen for their clarity, rather than their intellectual or stylistic richness. I suppose editors might make these selections with student readers in mind. Yet the same editors never omit "The Waste Land" in favor of "easier" Eliot poems. As for students, I've heard them say they thought Dickinson a bees-in-her-bonnet versifier with an elfin range, the Beatrix Potter of American Literature, until they read her complex, lesser-known work.

Those anthology favorites "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (986) and "I like to see it lap the Miles—" (585) are more contiguous than disjunctive in metaphor and syntax. They select their object—a snake or a train—and stare it down. They don't begin by focusing on a boxcar and in stanza two shift their gaze to wayward phenomena—volcanoes, India, or bodices—as a means of enriching the brew. Concrete rather than abstract in language, their imagery tends to be singular rather than multiple; their structure and success rest upon all they choose to exclude, rather than all they manage to embrace.

I like to see it lap the Miles— And lick the Valleys up— And stop to feed itself at Tanks— And then—prodigious step Around a pile of Mountains— And supercilious peer In Shanties—by the sides of Roads— And then a Quarry pare To fit its Ribs And crawl between Complaining all the while In horrid—hooting stanza— Then chase itself down Hill— And neigh like Boanerges— Then—punctual as a Star Stop—docile and omnipotent At its own stable door—

The train/horse metaphor extends throughout, with only a few mischievous imaginings from farther afield (the "hooting stanza" of its voice, for instance). Like many Dickinson poems, this one is a riddle. The little mystery is what sort of animal we have here—dragon, lion?—and that question isn't resolved until the final stanza's allusion to Boanerges. It is a delightful description, and one is charmed by Dickinson, the nature poet, taking on the technology of her day. Reading it, I wonder what use she would have made of automobiles, computers, or fast food had she been born a century later. Although the poem exemplifies one way in which Dickinson succeeds, it shouldn't be mistaken for the only way. In valuing imagistic, nondiscursive poems over more linguistically myriad work, we are applying the standards of contemporary poetry workshops to Emily Dickinson, rather than enlarging our scope to encompass one whose "splendors are Menagerie."

The term "workshop poetry" is too often used as a convenient catch-all for whatever someone wants to bemoan in American poetry. Here are a few shopworn maxims that seem to have had an effect upon contemporary verse: The language should be as much like everyday speech as possible: It must not draw attention to itself. A good poem sticks to the same tone: it does not mix levels of diction. If metered, the prosody should be fairly regular (blank verse is encouraged). Metaphors and imagery are to be added like salt and peppernot too many, not too few. The imagery should all be drawn from the same groupthat is, don't compare something to a football field in one line and a coal mine in the next. It is perhaps true that only a few Dickinson poems feature smooth prosody, a central governing metaphor, and pronouns with clear antecedents. Those who judge poetry's value by these lights will prize poems in which the language is most normalized. If we limit Dickinson's canon to "well-crafted" verse and work that can be understood within the romantic tradition, we overlook poems whose success rests upon breaches of syntax and plurality of subject. By reading Dickinson according to standards derived from other major poets and movements, we blind ourselves to what she, and she alone, accomplished with language. It's as if all other poems are trees and her poems are birds. Given arboreal expectations, we admire hers most when they sit on the ground. "I don't like the way it keeps flitting around," we complain.

Dickinson is primarily an ontological poet with a unique ability to forge inner landscapes from abstract, rather than concrete, language and to express ideas—states of being, if you will—without resorting to an objective correlative. Her most characteristic use of language reverses Williams's famous credo, "No ideas but in things," to "No Things within Ideas." The reversal of synecdoche is another signature technique. "You will perceive that the whole stands for a part in this place—" she wrote at the age of twenty (Letter 29). In her poetry an abstract whole such as Difference or Circumference elicits particular and partial examples in the reader's mind.

Poem 1046, for example, uses a high proportion of abstract language to describe a terrifying state of suspended animation, neither fully alive nor fully dead.

I've dropped my Brain—My Soul is numb— The Veins that used to run Stop palsied—'tis Paralysis Done perfecter on stone Vitality is Carved and cool. My nerve in Marble lies— A Breathing Woman Yesterday—Endowed with Paradise. Not dumb—I had a sort that moved— A Sense that smote and stirred— Instincts for Dance—a caper part— An Aptitude for Bird— Who wrought Carrara in me And chiselled all my tune Were it a Witchcraft—were it Death— I've still a chance to strain To Being, somewhere—Motion—Breath— Though Centuries beyond, And every limit a Decade— I'll shiver, satisfied.

The speaker's inner being has ossified, although she was "A Breathing Woman / Yesterday—Endowed with Paradise." She was, however, "Not dumb—," and the figures used to describe her lost legacy, dance and birds, are among Dickinson's favored metaphors for poetry. The poem implies that the ability to smite and stir, the narrator's power, is linked to her disinheritance. For a woman to speak her mind is dangerous: "I think Carlo would please you—," Dickinson wrote to Higginson in Letter 271. "He is dumb and brave…. " Carlo was her dog. The persona's creative life is changed from active force to tombstone engraving: "Who wrought Carrara in me / And chiselled all my tune," she asks. If this petrifaction is a result of witchcraft or death, the speaker still may "strain / To Being, somewhere—Motion—Breath—/ Though Centuries beyond…. " The lines imply that there is a deadlier abnegation than that of mortality: the silencing of one's creative futurity. In the case of women, patrilineage leads to the loss of rightful endowment, an eternal silencing. If, however, the speaker's ossification is due to those lesser forces, Witchcraft or Death, she plans to sprint through the Centuries until she finds that Utopian "somewhere—," a world in which she will be allowed to sing.

Poem 326 ("I cannot dance upon my Toes—") finds the narrator transforming such disinheritance into private enablement. Her poetry, she implies, is freakish because "No Man instructed me—." Indeed, if she had "Ballet knowledge" she could "blanch a Troupe—/ Or lay a Prima, mad." Here Dickinson describes the professional, published poet as engaged in an outlandish performance that passes for dance. Such poeticians hop "to Audiences—like Birds, / One Claw upon the Air," more grasping than graceful. Rather than engaging in such ignominious public display, her Art plays to the audience of herself, a gathering "full as Opera."

Whether she's protesting her pure, unpublished state or feeling obscurity as deadening force, such poems underscore Dickinson's ambivalence toward fame. I think she liked to imagine herself as a renowned writer. "I play at Riches—to appease / The Clamoring for Gold—," she wrote (801). As long as she was able to envision herself as a powerful literary presence, she could live with her effacement. The act of imagining herself to be both woman and acknowledged sovereign writer, a Queen, keeps her from the "Sin" of becoming "that easy Thing / an independent Man—." She is comforted to know that should she "in the long—uneven term" be declared a winner, she'll be fitter for her experience of Want. Poem 486 undermines the act of publication by means of puns: "I was the slightest in the House—" (publishing house); "I never spoke—unless addressed—" recalls Dickinson's habit of enclosing poems in letters to friends. "I could not bear to live—aloud—/ The Racket shamed me so—," she says, and The Racket refers as much to the life of a public poet as to any audible sound. Although the poem equates obscurity with integrity, in the last stanza the speaker realizes that because of her awkward ethics she might have no posthumous literary existence: "—I had often thought / How noteless—I could die—."

On the other hand, the voice of poem 612 is far less content with her small lot and furious to think suicide would lead to hereafter rather than to an appealing obliteration of consciousness.

It would have starved a Gnat— To live so small as I— And yet I was a living Child— With Food's necessity Upon me—like a Claw— I could no more remove Than I could coax a Leech away— Or make a Dragon—move— Nor like the Gnat—had I— The privilege to fly And seek a Dinner for myself— How mightier He—than I Nor like Himself—the Art Upon the Window Pane To gad my little Being out— And not begin—again—

Here, as in other poems, Dickinson defines subtle states by saying what they are not, possibly because no word exists for the emotional realm she's creating. She describes what she can't do as a means of evoking her obscured achievement (as in poem 486) or her entrapment (as in poem 612). The speaker of "It would have starved a Gnat—" can't remove the Claw of need; she can neither fly away to independence nor kill herself. Such negative locutions might well be influenced by gender. Women are defined in terms of what they are not (not man, not central; the Other, the peripheral, the distaff) and constructed according to what they lack rather than what they have. The female self is seen as the negative space that allows the positive pattern to emerge. Dickinson created a language embedded with this gendered attrition, a world in which What-Is-Not is something in itself. The voice of poem 646 uses negative definition to imagine a fuller life than the one currently known. In this poem, once again, the speaker and her work are stymied, lacking the power to live and the power to die.

I think to Live—may be a Bliss To those who dare to try— Beyond my limit to conceive— My lip—to testify— I think the Heart I former wore Could widen—till to me The Other, like the little Bank Appear—unto the Sea— I think the Days—could every one In Ordination stand— And Majesty—be easier— Than an inferior kind— No numb alarm—lest Difference come— No Goblin—on the Bloom— No start in Apprehension's Ear, No Bankruptcy—no Doom— But Certainties of Sun— Midsummer—in the Mind— A steadfast South—upon the Soul— Her Polar time—behind— The Vision—pondered long— So plausible becomes That I esteem the fiction—real— The Real—fictitious seems— How bountiful the Dream— What Plenty—it would be

Had all my Life but been Mistake Just rectified—in Thee

In stanza two, the speaker's self (the Heart of being) widens to oceanic size, a feat that necessarily removes her from a tangential position. When placed beside this expanded self, the not-me or Other takes on a new scale: ratioed as "the little Bank" is to the Sea. The speaker's wishful vision includes days that stand "In Ordination," a time when Majesty is easier to achieve than inferiority. To ordain is to canonize, in both literary and religious senses. In Dickinson's day, as now, the highest religious and political offices were held by men. For those whose religion is literature, the poet must be priest and prophet. It's difficult to envision a woman in this sphere when actual religions restrict her, at best, to the role of nun, sibyl, or handmaiden to men of the cloth. Thus, the role of poet/priest is seldom accorded a female writer, as it is an Emerson, Thoreau, or Whitman. In this poem, the speaker imagines an impossible Utopia or "Bliss" in which her life, her "Days," would be officially invested (ordained) with literary or religious authority. This condition is so hard to describe—because it has never existed—that in stanza four Dickinson resorts to negative definition. She creates the ideal, enfranchised state by saying all it is not. The fullest realization of life is achieved only when one manages to be unafraid of "Difference," possibly because, as stanza two suggests, the Difference has been eradicated: One is no longer in a position of gendered Otherness. Instead of "Bankruptcy," the fully alive woman enjoys "Certainties of Sun—" (Son). Her world of negative definition is replaced by the sure singular faith experienced by Sons, the birthright of those who are culturally central, rather than "Polar." The last two stanzas find the poet utterly convinced by the fantasy she's concocted.

In poem after poem Dickinson defies notions of Otherness by reminding us that all components are mutually dependent and equally important to the whole. The second stanza of 1754 asks us to consider the unseen depths that support the ocean:

To lose thee—sweeter than to gain All other hearts I knew. 'Tis true the drought is destitute, But then, I had the dew! The Caspian has its realms of sand, Its other realm of sea. Without the sterile perquisite, No Caspian could be.

The sandy ocean floor is Other to the ocean's dominant One. Its position, like woman's, is that of "sterile perquisite" or unfruitful privilege. Yet without such a hidden pedestal the sea's visible aspect could not exist. Poem 584 views women as agents in their own curtailment: The speaker's Grief is likened to the needles "ladies softly press" in pincushions "To keep their place." And the state of numbed, emotional abeyance that appalls in other poems is welcomed as a release from this Anguish.

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow I could not feel the Anguish go— But only knew by looking back— That something—had benumbed the Track— Nor when it altered, I could say, For I had worn it, every day, As constant as the Childish frock— I hung upon the Peg, at night. But not the Grief—that nestled close As needles—ladies softly press To Cushions Cheeks— To keep their place— Nor what consoled it, I could trace— Except, whereas 'twas Wilderness— It's better—almost Peace—

In this reversal of synecdoche, "It," "the Anguish," is an immense whole standing for whatever part the reader cares to inscribe. The specifics of "It" could include a failed love affair, the death of a loved one, or the knowledge of creative abnegation. The poem draws upon the same matrix of imagery—the frock upon the Peg, the Cheeks, Wilderness—as 430, another great poem, which I will analyze in depth.

It would never be Common—more—I said— Difference—had begun— Many a bitterness—had been— But that old sort—was done.— Or—if it sometime—showed—as 'twill Upon the Downiest—Morn— Such bliss—had I—for all the years— 'Twould give an Easier—pain— I'd so much joy—I told it—Red— Upon my simple Cheek— I felt it publish—in my Eye— 'Twas needless—any speak— I walked—as wings—my body bore— The feet—I former used— Unnecessary—now to me— As boots—would be—to Birds— I put my pleasure all abroad— I dealt a word of Gold To every Creature—that I met— And Dowered—all the World—

When—suddenly—my Riches shrank— A Goblin—drank my Dew— My Palaces—dropped tenantless— Myself—was beggared—too— I clutched at sounds— I groped at shapes— I touched the tops of Films— I felt the Wilderness roll back Along my Golden lines— The Sackcloth—hangs upon the nail— The Frock I used to wear— But where my moment of Brocade— My—drop—of India?

Syntactical deletion, compression, and blurred pronouns create a degree of profusion extreme even for Dickinson. Almost every line can be reconstructed in several ways, allowing for many variant meanings and a high level of reader involvement. Of course, all literary texts require imagination and reconstruction from a reader. In Dickinson this process is exaggerated as the reader's decisions create one of many possible narratives. If asked to describe the poem's meaning in the simplest terms, we might say it tells a story of gain followed by loss. But what the speaker has won and forfeited is not revealed. The poem's first word, that expansive "It," enforces multiple interpretations by refusing to be pinned to a definite antecedent. Rather than creating an annoying vagueness, as might be expected, Dickinson's unspecified catalysts allow for a greater degree of reader engagement. One notices, too, that this poem does not settle on a single image to describe the inner domain, the way housekeeping represents grief in "The Bustle in a House."

Dickinson's signature dashes and her technique of capitalization satisfy our preference for physicality without sacrificing conceptual thought. We linger on "Common" (line one) because of the capital C: Our minds give the abstract word a solidity equal to its typographic weight. In stanza two, line four, "'Twould give an Easier—pain—," the adjective "Easier" precedes the pause of the dash, momentarily taking the syntactical place of the direct object. Since the object of a sentence is frequently a noun, and nouns are often concrete words, "Easier" borrows a nounlike substance before our eyes move on to the syntactically normal direct object, "pain." The potential melodrama of the latter word is undercut by the absence of capitalization, and the lowercase p throws "Easier" into high relief.

Quantum physics, the representative science of our age, offers not one but many ways in which the world might be constructed. One popular theory holds that reality is created by the observer. That is, phenomena such as the moon or trees do not exist until they are observed. This belief is akin to idealism in philosophy, which holds that the world is nothing but mind, and to reception theory in literary criticism, which stresses that readers create a text by connecting and interpreting a series of "gaps" between words and phrases. In an early letter (#32), Dickinson replaced the entire salutation with a dash, explaining "That is'nt [sic] an empty blank where I began—it is so full of affection that you cant see any—that's all." Dickinson's dashes underscore the high proportion of such resonant gaps in her poetry. In Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg says that the elementary particles " … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts…. The probability wave … means a tendency for something. It's a quantitative version of the old concept of potentia in Aristotle's philosophy. It introduces something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality." Dickinson's dashes are a linguistic analogue of probability waves. Moreover, many of her poems are marked with tiny crosses directing us to alternate word choices in the margins. Scholars cannot determine which of these possible words she finally privileged since various drafts make various selections, and other options are never ruled out. One must either allow the poem to be a palimpsest of multiple inscriptions or else participate in the composition by choosing the best word.

One of the more outrageous claims made by some physicists is that reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes. To quote Nick Herbert's Quantum Reality, "For any situation in which several different outcomes are possible (flipping a coin, for instance) some physicists believe that all outcomes actually occur" Just as a flipped coin can show both heads and tails in Heisenberg's world, in the kingdom of Dickinson contradictory events occur simultaneously. Her poetry affords such pleasure in part because it allows us to eat many cakes and have them all. In real life, taking one path usually means forsaking all others. A Dickinson poem, in contrast, allows us to experience many outcomes, some of them conflicting. "I dwell in Possibility—," she wrote. Her poems prolong the intoxicating moment before choice when all options are potentially ours. The loss implicit in any decision is permanently forestalled.

The first line of 430, for example, can be reconstructed in the following ways:

It [my life] would never be Common [ordinary, taken for granted]—[what's] more—I said—

It [my purpose] would never be Common [known to all, as in common knowledge or held in common]—[it would be] more—I said—

It [your love for me] would never be Common [something that occurs frequently]—[so give me] more—I said—

All these narrative catalysts can be extended throughout the poem. And as we read on. additional narratives spring up to accommodate the connotations of new words, syntax, and context. The poem becomes more myriad with each line, as possible meanings mutate and increase. Hence my reading of 430 doesn't pretend to be the one "right" interpretation or the meaning Dickinson intended. Rather, I offer it as an approach that allows us to appreciate the text's expansive quality.

It's possible to read 430 as a poem in which a woman confronts literary effacement'. There are two revelatory moments, the first an experience of empowerment, the second of divestment, as the speaker realizes that lineage and legitimacy must pass from father to son, that she is a Commoner rather than a ruling Queen whose descendants will assume the throne. The narrative progresses from the speaker's recognition of her gift and her ensuing euphoria to her attempts to "dower" or bequeath her poetic legacy. The temerity of this action leads to her sudden downfall and an awareness of her "beggared" state. The languages of royalty, fabric and fashion, publishing and the writer's trade, spatial abstraction, architecture, geometry, and gambling create a bouquet of meaning different from the one that would be achieved by extending a single metaphor throughout.

As the poem begins, the speaker has just become aware of her extraordinary poetic gift. She speaks confidently, in the first flush of accomplishment.

It would never be Common—more—I said— Difference—had begun— Many a bitterness—had been— But that old sort—was done—

This is the moment of triumph all artists know upon achieving work that pleases the inner critic: It [my poetry] would never be Common [plebeian as opposed to royal]—[any] more—I said—/ [My awareness of] Difference—[from other writers] had begun—. Difference entails Otherness; the speaker recognizes herself as alien, "from Mars," if you will. This line also implies that Difference in the sense of argument had begun. The speaker's quarrel is with her peers and with those writers who preceded, indeed overshadowed her. Another reconstruction is: It [my poetry] would never be Common—[any] more—/ [because] Differ ence—had begun—. Hence, the reason for my newly royal status is this Difference, this Otherness, this argument. Many a bitterness—had been—[as a result of my Difference] / But that old sort—[of bitterness] was done—[once I saw my Difference as a strength.]

Or—if it sometime—showed—as 'twill Upon the Downiest—Morn— Such bliss—had I—for all the years— 'Twould give an Easier—pain—

The indeterminate "it" in the first line harks back to "bitterness" in stanza one as the closest antecedent. But since we've already defined "It" as the speaker's poetry, that meaning must be allowed as well. The open pronoun also might refer to "Difference." The last word in this line, "'twill," is a pun, a figure of speech seldom found in romantic literature but occurring frequently in the metaphysical poets and Shakespeare, which is where Dickinson might have schooled her usage. Readers first recognize "'twill" as an archaic contraction of "It will." But it is also "a basic textile weave producing an allover surface pattern of fine diagonal lines or ribs … made by floating weft or warp threads over groups of two or more threads and staggering these floats regularly or irregularly to form a slanting line." (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, my source for all the definitions that follow.) "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," Dickinson wrote. The definition of "twill" reads like a marvelous description of her verse, with its surface pattern of narrative lines advancing on their parallel (diagonal) tracks, its regular or irregular meter, and its "slanting line." The concept of floating, staggering threads also contains seeds of the spatial imagery developed in lines to come. Lest this seem farfetched, remember we're reading a poet who claimed her lexicon as her only companion. Surely the definition of twill, a stout, old-fashioned gabardine, can't have changed much over the years.

In the stanza's second line, we first hear the preposition "Upon" as meaning "on the occasion of." However, it also introduces the poem's spatial metaphor. When empowered, the speaker is able to view the world from above; her vantage point is akin to a bird's freewheeling prospect or a Queen's enthroned pinnacle. She's on top of things, in the colloquial sense. A bitterness, the firm "twill" of her writing, and/or her Difference—any of these possible subjects might show Upon [on the occasion of, or resting on top of] the Downiest—Morn—. In its noun form, down is a covering of soft fluffy feathers that clothes young birds before they acquire true feathers; it's used for pillow stuffing because of its light weight and good insulating quality. In Dickinson's poem, "Downiest," most simply, is a vivid descriptor of the ne plus ultra in feathery, woolly morning clouds, But it also suggests a costume of false protection or insulation.

The obvious reconstruction of the second stanza is this: Or—if it [the old bitterness] sometime—showed [permitted itself to be seen]—as 'twill [as it will, as it is certain to]—/ Upon [on the occasion of] the Downiest [most insulated, soothing]—Morn—/ Such bliss—had I—for [in spite of] all the years—/ 'Twould [the bitterness would] give an Easier—pain—. However, the lines take on another dimension when read this way: Or—if it [my poetry] sometime—showed [proved itself]—as 'twill [to be like twill, that firm fabric of slanting lines] / Upon [resting on top of] the Downiest—[most insubstantial] Morn—/ Such bliss—had I—[enough] for all the years—/ 'Twould [the bliss would] give an Easier—pain [than the bitterness I'd had before]. In this reading, the speaker's writing shows itself to be a firm fabric above a more insubstantial, adolescent stuff: down, the false feathers shed by young birds as they mature. Thus, the narrator's art might occasionally achieve an uncommon quality, which gives her infinite joy. Such extreme bliss is painful in itself, but it's an "easier" pain than "that old sort" of bitterness.

I'd so much joy—I told it—Red— Upon my simple Cheek— I felt it publish—in my Eye— 'Twas needless—any speak—

The punning Red/read and the verb "publish" work as slant allusions to writing; "Upon" appears again, suggesting spatial hierarchies. But in this context, "Upon" also can mean "against in vengeance or punishment" (wage war upon); very soon after; in answer to; or by means of. "Simple" is a surprisingly rich choice, with its denotations of artless, common, credulous, naive, and "lacking admixture or qualification." Shakespeare used the word to mean feeble or insignificant, as Dickinson surely knew. In addition to the anatomical meaning, "Cheek" is both insolence and "a lateral side of any mass, structure, or opening as … either of the side posts of a door or gate." Thus, stanza three can be rendered as follows: I'd so much joy—[that] I [had] told it [my poetry]—Red [Read! I am read]—/ Upon [by means of] my simple [unqualified] Cheek [boldness]—/ I felt it [my poetry] publish—[therefore] in my Eye [Eyes]—"Twas needless—any [other] speak [on my behalf]—. Or alternately, I felt it [my poetry] publish—in my Eye [in my "I," within myself]—/ [therefore] 'Twas needless—[that] any [of my poetry] speak [aloud or publicly]—. Yet another reading suggests the speaker wore her jewel-bright words (Red) like a vivid brocade atop her previously simple (dull, untutored) cheek (face). As in stanza two, when her writing floated a firm warp and weft over less substantial material, in the latter reading her poetry rests atop inferior stuff.

The poem at midpoint finds the narrator held aloft like a bird by her uncommon powers. From this prospect, the meter (feet) she once used moves with a heavy-booted tread.

I walked—as wings—my body bore— The feet—I former used— Unnecessary—now to me— As boots—would be—to Birds—

One of the meanings of "wings" is "a turned back or extended edge on an article of clothing," as in a woman's spreading collar with pointed corners. Dickinson's famous white gown sported just such wings. Of course, wing collars are at the top of a garment, unlike lowly boots, affirming the speaker's taste for what is up rather than "down." Reading "wings" in the most obvious sense, the speaker is a mature bird, unlike those downy creatures flapping in the subtext without the power of flight. In addition, a wing is "either of the parts of a double door or screen," which makes it very like an architectural cheek. It's also a part of a building subordinate to the main or central part and an outlying region or district. By using these senses, Dickinson again locates empowerment in Difference and periphery. Her wings are built on the Circumference of central structures. They project from, are different from, the central part, and therein lies their value. Although we first hear the word "bore" (line one) as the past participle of the verb "to bear," it also means to "pierce … make a cylindrical opening in or through by removal of material." With this in mind, the stanza's first lines can mean: I walked—as [the way] wings [walk]—[which is to say, I flew]. My body [of work] bore [opened and deleted] / The [poetic] feet—I former used—/ [which are] Unnecessary—now to me / As boots—would be—to Birds—." Heard in the above sense, "bore" lets us see the speaker's new prosody removing cylinders from the "old sort" of meter. The old "common" meter is riddled with holes, round absences. The speaker's wings are also part of the circular imagery, since a wing can be the arc-shaped piece of a pair of wing compasses that permits the legs (feet) to be fixed at a desired angle. Dickinson very likely knew Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," with its extraordinary comparison of lovers to "stiff twin compasses." Drawing upon the same imagery, she invests her speaker with wings, each one an arc or partial circle. It is their partial quality, their deletions, that make them wings at all and enable navigation. Just as the wings of a compass permit the legs to be fixed at a desired angle, so Dickinson's wings enable her to angle her poetic feet on the slant.

I put my pleasure all abroad— I dealt a word of Gold To every Creature—that I met— And Dowered—all the World—

Here the winged speaker goes public with her powers, endowing the World with portions of her royal estate: Readers probably first understand the verb "put" (line one) as put forth: make public. If the speaker's "pleasure" is her writing, then she is making a public assertion of her talent. To put also means to express or state, and one's pleasure can be one's dearest purpose or inclination. So the regal speaker is proclaiming her desire as well as sharing her wealth. The first meaning of put is "to send (as a weapon or missile) into or through something: thrust" (put a bullet through). Thus, the speaker's pleasure/poetry bores through the World "abroad," endowing her literary heirs with deletions, absences identical to the holes she drilled into her own work in stanza four: I put [drilled] my pleasure [through what was] all abroad—. Dickinson's legacy, a paradoxical aesthetic of expansion by deletion, is both eccentric and dangerous. To be abroad is to be away from one's home, out in the open. Thus far, Dickinson has stressed the value of what is neither common nor simple, but royal and exotic. Here her persona ventures forth from ordinary life at home into a wider sphere. As a preposition, abroad means "throughout, over," and the Webster's example is taken from another Dickinson poem: "and then abroad the world he goes." Clearly, "abroad" had connotations of height in her mind. The poem's speaker is aloft, calling the shots from on high. Yet abroad can also mean wide of the mark: astray. In this sense, she could be succumbing to a confusion of purpose in sending her creative riches into the public forum: I put [put to use, employed] my pleasure [writing] all abroad [astray]—. If we read put as supposed ("put the absurd, impossible case for once—"—Robert Browning) or wagered, the speaker is allowing publication to determine her pleasure/writing. She is supposing all her riches lay "abroad," rather than within herself; she is basing her pleasure/writing upon a public opinion; and she is gambling by allowing her writing to be published.

She then becomes a linguistic croupier, dealing her "word of Gold." Just as gold can be woven into cloth, her elemental words form an extraordinary twill: malleable, occurring "chiefly in the free state…. " One remembers, too, that gold is hardened or changed in color for commercial use by alloying with less precious metals. "… Bullion is better than minted things, for it has no alloy," she wrote (Letter 889). If strewing her words abroad is a commercial gesture, the words are devalued in the process. To deal is to bestow a fair share, hence the speaker's stance is expansively democratic: She will apportion her wealth widely and equitably. However, dealing "a word of Gold," a metallic command rather than a downy poeticism, is also akin to dealing a blow. The targets of such words are "every Creature." The darker denotations of "Creature"—instrument, minion; "one whose will is not free" (creature of habit)—suggest the speaker as imperialist or emancipator, using her "word of Gold" to dominate or to empower.

In the stanza's last line, she bequeaths the lines/lineage of her poetry to all circumference, all posterity. The verb dower means "dare to give," as well as to endow. Dowry, the noun form, is not only the gift given to one's spouse at marriage, but also a sum required of postulants by some religious communities. By dowering the world, the poem's persona enacted two roles forbidden women under patriarchy: She dared to bequeath her poems (synonymous with her mind and name) to her literary heirs, and she offered her work as religious dues, a dowry to secure her status as poet/priest. "When a little Girl," she wrote in Letter 330, "I remember hearing that remarkable passage and preferring the 'Power,' not knowing at the time that 'Kingdom' and 'Glory' were included."

When—suddenly—my Riches shrank— A Goblin—drank my Dew— My Palaces—dropped tenantless— Myself—was beggared—too—

The narrator's sudden divestment is the predictable outcome of her temerity. Her formerly wide prospect shrinks like unsized cloth; her futurity, the amorphous Creatures she hoped to endow, clarify into monsters: "A Goblin—drank my Dew—." The portion of fame the speaker justifiably expects, her due, is consumed by the Goblin posterity. Whereas once her resources were wide enough to encompass an immense sphere (the World), they are now tiny globes of Dew: "small deposits of water … produced … in the free atmosphere." Her creative Riches become a condensation of vapor directly from the ground, insubstantial and lowly as Down.

"My Palaces—dropped tenantless—," she notes, and one can envision those residences of sovereign and bishop raining down in tiny dew-shaped pieces. Such watery bullets are unable to drill or "bore" enabling deletions in their targets. Of course, a thing has to be highly placed in order to drop. If her lofty Palace was a large public building, "as for … superior court," then we see her case dismissed to a lawless inferior realm. But if her Palace was "a gaudy establishment fitted up as a place of public resort," its fall could signal entry into an unsullied, noncommercial realm. If we read "dropped" as a descent "from one line or level to another," the speaker's Palaces, her verbal architecture, are descendants but not progenitors. ("For the Voice is the Palace of all of us…. "—Letter 438) She who wished to endow the World is patronized instead: My Palaces [writing]—dropped [descended to me from on high] tenantless [without a legal occupant]. To drop is also to give birth (as in "she dropped her foal"). The speaker's Palaces bear nothingness: They drop (give birth) "tenantless," with nothing to bring forth. And since to drop often means "to die," her Palaces perish without issue. Gamblers know that to drop is to withdraw from a poker pot by discarding one's hand. In this sense the speaker is choosing to withdraw from competition: My Palaces [my writing]—[I] dropped [withdrew] tenantless [from occupation by others]—. Moreover, drop is used to describe a card that must be played because of the obligation to follow suit (as when the queen drops under the ace). The poem's protagonist, formerly a dealer, now finds herself aced, her hand forced by conventional, arbitrary rules. The last line goes out of its way to equate disenfranchisement of work with impoverishment of being. Now that the persona is "beggared," her inner life (Myself) and the eternal life of her work (My Palaces) depend on the largesse of others.

This poem is composed entirely of quatrains until its penultimate stanza, which has one extra line. As the speaker's patterned, hierarchical spheres dissolve into entropic Wilderness, the breaking of stanzaic form enacts her loss of control.

I clutched at sounds— I groped at shapes— I touched the tops of Films— I felt the Wilderness roll back Along my Golden lines—

The syntax of the first two lines is simple and declarative. The protagonist's voice takes on optimum directness, as if she can't afford more complex formulations. This is the only stanza with no midline dashes, since hesitant caesuras would brake the urgency. I noted earlier that Dickinson's abstractions frequently have a concrete quality. In this extremity, her persona views abstract sounds and shapes as physical solids able to support her. She who relied upon the marvelous "twill" of her poems, a cloth of gold suspending her above "the Downiest—Morn," now finds herself supported by "the tops of Films," a veil of fabric flimsy as down. "Films" also suggests blindness: "a pathological growth on or in the eye." One recalls Dickinson's eye problems—serious enough to call for prolonged treatment in Boston.

Once a wanderer in the realms of Gold, she now flounders in a filmy Wilderness like the downy, indeterminate cloudscape of stanza two. In contrast to her former fertility, a wilderness is a barren and remote expanse; a confusing multitude or mass. The speaker saw herself as Bird. Now this role is appropriated by the Wilderness, which rolls or trills back at her in a mockery of applause. Viewed as landscape, a rolling Wilderness has an undulating contour—much like downs. A composite of high and low, it rebuts the speaker's firm spatial hierarchies. In fact, the motion of this Wilderness is frighteningly hard to predict. Is it the Common, old sort of bitterness returning, closing over the Golden lines of her poetry like a rolltop desk? Or does it coil backwards, winding itself up like a gauzy roller bandage, in accordance with the speaker's directions (Along her Golden lines)? Rather than settling such questions, Dickinson's syntax and vocabulary allow us to locate agency in either Wilderness or speaker. Whereas once the protagonist roamed freely, now the Wilderness extends in abundance: wallowing, rolling. However, the speaker's Golden lines may be pipes or reins to channel its expansive force. One can imagine the Wilderness as an immense steamroller, leveling the irregular pattern of the poetic line. Or one can read roll as "to make (a stereotype matrix) or mold (a form) in a mangle" and envision the Wilderness molding both itself and the lines back into a Common, stereotypical form: I felt the Wilderness roll [itself] back [up] / Along [with] my Golden lines [of poetry]—. The Wilderness becomes a giant metronome enforcing regular prosody when roll is percussive: I felt the Wilderness roll [drum] back [in response] / Along [over the length of] my Golden lines—. Thus, the enabling holes the speaker drilled in meter return in this monstrous, whirling Wilderness capable of obliterating her language entirely. Dickinson's fascicles come to mind when we learn that along means "for the whole length … specif: with the thread stitches of a book passed direct from two opposed kettle stitches—used with all (to handsew a book or section all along)." One envisions a Wilderness of literary obscurity wheeling all along the orderly books she stitched with lines of thread. Rolled gold is a base metal sheathed in a thin plate of gold. Here, however, the values are reversed as a brass Wilderness plates 24-karat lines. But all of these readings are undermined when we realize a line is also a length of material used in measuring and leveling. One can use such lines to regularize foundations—or chaos.

The speaker and the Wilderness are engaged in sportive struggle, since roll is to throw dice in competition: I felt the Wilderness roll back [take its turn at dice] / Along [alongside] my Golden lines (lines can be "a strip on a craps layout on which are placed side bets to the effect that the caster of dice will pass")—. Lines are also the means of defense or control that present a front to the enemy; they are threads of a spider's web; ropes attached to whaling harpoons; the four imaginary areas on a fencer's body when confronting an opponent; or snares for fish—all meanings that suggest battle. The twill of this poetry is spun from long fibers of flax known as lines; and the word also describes the style or cut of the speaker's winged garment. Most importantly, lines means a person's ancestors and descendants, as in bloodlines. Thus the Wilderness, in rolling back along the speaker's lines or descendants, obliterates her literary issue. If, on the other hand, a line is a leash, the Wilderness is rolling over like a trained puppy on a Golden lead.

Most of these reconstructions take "Golden lines" as a sincere reference to high-quality verse. However, the phrase may be an ironic, self-mocking comment on language ordered like a merchant's line of goods, with salability and public demand in mind. Earlier the poem equated entry into the public sphere with confusion of purpose. Now the speaker may recognize that the act of putting her "pleasure all abroad" changed her "word of Gold" into fool's Gold. Such Golden lines are like an actor's golden-tongued utterances: a glib means of persuasion and manipulation.

By the last stanza, the narrator's golden lines have been woven into a garment of mourning and placed on high, in the honorific realm where she had flown.

The Sackcloth—hangs upon the nail— The Frock I used to wear— But where my moment of Brocade— My—drop—of India?

But sackcloth can also signal protest. A symbol of repentance or rebellion, it hangs in abeyance beside the Frock she wore in the Common days, before the "difference" of poetry. In stanza five, the narrator tried to "dower" all the World with poems, as if they were the dues paid by a religious postulant. However, rather than being canonized, she finds herself defrocked. In addition to its religious denotation, a frock is "an outer garment worn chiefly by men"; "a coat of mail"; "a workman's outer shirt"; "a military coat"; "a woman's dress"; and "a dress … formerly worn by both boys and girls." Thus deprived of religious, combative, plebeian, protective, androgynous costumes, what role is left her? If frock and sackcloth are the same garment, as the syntax can suggest, the roles associated with "Frock" are also forms of mourning or protest. Even if the narrator willingly discarded these possible states—from Commoner to priest—what sphere now remains for her?

These questions are among many clustered in the poem's last two lines. Brocade, a rich oriental silk fabric with raised patterns embroidered in gold and silver threads, is a royal twill indeed. Readers probably hear "moment of Brocade" as the speaker's instant of empowerment. The final line "My—drop—of India?" most obviously refers to her minute part of an exotic public domain. If, however, we define moment as "an essential or constituent element," we hear her wonder what's become of the elemental Gold thread in her impoverished Brocade. That this fabric had connotations of legacy, firmness, and solitude to Dickinson is clear from her letters. To Samuel Bowles (Letter 277) she wrote of" … your memory that can stand alone, like the best Brocade." And in letter 368, to Higginson, she said "—But truth like Ancestor's Brocades can stand alone—." Since George Eliot was one of Dickinson's enthusiasms, the notion of Brocade as a coat of arms was probably suggested by this passage from The Mill on the Floss: "Mrs. Glegg … had inherited from her grandmother … a brocaded gown that would stand up empty, like a suit of armour…. " And drop means "a small pear-shaped figure occasionally borne as a heraldic charge." In this poem, the speaker has lost her "drop—of India," the tiny woman-shape that served as emblem of her feminine yet royal lineage. Heraldry, however, is based on patrilineage; hence the narrator's attempt to forge a heraldic device of her own, in the India ink drops of her poems, is an impossible task. Dickinson uses the verb to drop in the sixth stanza ("My Palaces—dropped tenantless—") to show a grand verbal structure giving birth to nothingness. In this conclusion, we hear her persona wondering what has become of her progeny: [Where is] My—drop [the act of giving birth or the young so born]—of India [ink]? A drop is also the space through which an unrestrained escape wheel moves while disengaged from the pallets. Thus the space of poetry might provide an escape from the rolling Wilderness of stanza seven: But where my moment [impetus] of Brocade [poems]—/ [which was] My—drop [escape route]—of India [ink]? And since drop is a pendant jewel or ornament, the last line oscillates between ideas of words as gems and words as baubles: But where my moment [essential element] of Brocade [language]—/ [which is] My—drop [jewel or bauble]—of India [ink]?"

Thinking of moment as consequence, and recalling Dickinson's eye troubles, one sees the lines this way: But where [is] my moment [effect, consequence] of Brocade [verb: "to weave patterns into"]—/ [Where is] My—drop [eyedrop]—of India [ink]? Drop is "a solution for dilating the pupil of the eye." One takes in too much through such an open gaze; the expanded pupil winces at the gemmy glittering world it must admit. But where is the influence I should exert having written brilliant poems? she asks. And where are the poems that enlarged my vision? Those drops of India ink afforded protection and identification, as well as a dazzling expansion.

We've noticed the speaker's ambivalence toward publication or putting her "pleasure all abroad." That vacillation continues if drop is read as "a decline in quality." And Dickinson might have known an obscure meaning of moment from Shakespeare, who used the word to mean a cause or motive of action ("I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment"). Just as "to embroider" is a gentle way of saying "to lie," the verb brocade connotes a language of false, decorative overlays. In light of this, the last lines might be rendered: But where my moment [motivation] of Brocade [verb: to embroider, falsify]—/ [which was] My—drop [deterioration]—of India [ink]? Having lost the impulse to "brocade" her poems, the narrator is in a state of indeterminate purity: neither high nor low, royal nor common. Her relinquishment of fame signals her ordainment as poet rather than poetician.

The Newtonian definitions of moment also were available to Dickinson, who was well educated in the science of her day. These meanings speak to the poem's large tropes of center and periphery, public and private spheres. Scientifically speaking, a moment is the tendency to produce motion, especially about a point or axis. When applied to "moment of Brocade" we see the gorgeous raised patterns of the narrator's poetry creating a stir on the periphery of a literary center. Moment is also "the product of quantity (as a force) and the distance to a particular axis or point," as in moment of a couple, moment of a force, moment of inertia, or "moment of Brocade." In Dickinson's poem, moment results when her genius (force) is multiplied by her distance from a literary axis. Thus in the last lines, the speaker has lost the problem of genius times distance that resulted in the "product" of her poems. But she is unable to lose or "drop" her longing for a public domain: "But where [is] my moment [product] of Brocade [poems]—/ [And where] My—drop [relinquishment]—of India [the foreign sphere she wished to enter]? The speaker's Otherness, her aberrant quality, is prized if "moment" is read as "… some power of the deviations of the elements of a frequency distribution from a specified norm, syn: importance." In Emily Dickinson, A Poet's Grammar, Cristanne Miller writes, "In poetry, meaning may lie as much in the interaction of semantic content and form as in a message that can be isolated from the poem. The more a poem calls attention to its formal elements by various foregrounding techniques, the more the reader is likely to learn about its meaning from them. If we assume as a norm language that calls no attention to its formal properties by deviating from the conventions of standard communication (that is, an utterance intended solely to communicate a message), then Dickinson's poetry is richly deviant." Thus, her Brocade's importance is equal to its degree of deviation from the norms of language: But where my moment [important deviance] of Brocade [foregrounded difference in language]—?

A Poet's Grammar provides a fascinating analysis of Dickinson's syntactical strategies. The book also will interest all who enjoy thinking about the formal aspects of language, since Miller's tools and methods can be applied with profit to any poet's work. While considering the distance between biographical mythology and Miller's brilliant formalist approach, I was tempted to call this essay "A Poet's Glamour." In the Middle Ages, those who had "grammar" or knowledge seemed to possess magical occult powers. Eventually the Scots substituted an l, making "glamour" the etymological daughter of "grammar." In like fashion, Dickinson's glamour is the corrupt form of her grammar. Her poetry has been diluted and her readers deluded by fanciful images of the poet—from debutante to Dragon Lady. It's time we turned our attention to her grammar in the ancient sense: that enchanting, learned language she inexplicably magicked from hymns, trash, canon, culture, and self.

I think Emily Dickinson believed herself a great poet. She needed that faith in order to make poetry central to her life. By choosing to be a recluse and refusing publication, she protected herself from the world's opinion of her talent, which might have destroyed her as an artist. Helen Hunt Jackson, a highly successful poet herself, pressed Dickinson to publish, and could have helped her had she shown any interest. But it was as if she intuited (perhaps from her correspondence with Higginson) that publication would diminish her. Indeed, had she read the scathing Atlantic review of her debut, it would have been much harder to regard herself as Queen of language. Only full enfranchisement, the recognition of her stature as a mature woman genius, would suffice. "Queen" appears in nineteen of her poems; "princess" in none.

Although Dickinson went to great lengths to protect her gift, at times the world's disregard must have impinged. Like 430 ("It would never be Common—more—I said—"), the following poem (458) can be read as a female writer's awakening to disenfranchisement. In this case, the persona addresses either her own reflection or an imagined literary daughter. The speaker may be regarding herself and considering the same question posed in another poem: "What would the Dower be / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!" (505) As a woman, however, she is incapable of endowing herself or her descendants with any illuminating lineage. As in 430, the speaker's slant vision, her culturally defined Otherness, is recognized as the source of both her creative power and her historical effacement. Having said this, I must add that I offer such suggestions only as an invitation. I hope readers will stitch shimmering absences and orchestrate bountiful options to arrive at their own versions of the poem.

Like Eyes that looked on Wastes— Incredulous of Ought But Blank—and steady Wilderness— Diversified by Night— Just Infinites of Nought— As far as it could see— So looked the face I looked upon— So looked itself—on Me— I offered it no Help— Because the Cause was Mine— The Misery a Compact As hopeless—as divine— Neither—would be absolved— Neither would be a Queen Without the Other—Therefore— We perish—tho' We reign—


1 Women who write poetry are commonly called "women poets"; men who write poetry are commonly called "poets." I use "man poet" here because the term establishes linguistic parity and questions the implications of singling out women for difference. When "female poet" replaces "woman poet" as the popular term, it will be fair to say "male poet" rather than "man poet."

2 Spring/Summer 1988.

3 This paragraph seems to belong in the early seventies, when the practical aspects of women's status underwent much investigation. Yet despite the many resultant changes in our lives, the statistics I cite prove that there has been little sharing of power or esteem within the higher echelons of poetry. Rather than being self-evident, this state of affairs is willfully ignored. Hence I offer these facts, though in doing so I feel I'm reinventing the wheel.

Cheryl Walker (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4158

SOURCE: "Locating a Feminist Critical Practice: Between the Kingdom and the Glory," in Emily Dickinson: a Celebration for Readers, edited by Suzanne Juhasz and Cristanne Miller, Gordon and Breach, 1989, pp. 9-19.

[In the following essay, Walker analyzes the way in which Dickinson's views and portrayals of power relationships were influenced "by her experience of gender." Walker maintains that while some feminist examinations of Dickinson have painted her life as a "model of a successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," this view is inaccurate, given Dickinson's fascination with male power.]

In three different letters, numbered by Johnson and Ward 292, 330, and 583, Emily Dickinson uses a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:13) to privilege power as a category surpassing or incorporating kingdom and glory. One such passage reads: "When I was a little Girl I remember hearing that remarkable passage and preferring the 'Power,' not knowing at the time that 'Kingdom' and 'Glory' were included" (L 330).

As a feminist critic I am concerned with power: both the power language confers and the power relations which affect language use itself. Dickinson was first taken up in a major way by the New Critics who preferred what I would call the glory aspect of power in its synchronie dimensions. This was an era in which the "universality" of Dickinson's poems, particularly those about God, love and death, was applauded along with her linguistic originality. Dickinson herself called glory "that bright tragic thing/ That for an instant/ Means Dominion" in poem # 1660. The "instant" seems to lie outside of time though it might also be said to "remember" time which gives it the aura of tragic limitation.

Kingdom, on the other hand, is a signalling word frequently used to differentiate different forms of time, as in #721 ("Behind me dips Eternity") or forms of power. As a Janus-faced image, the kingdom may look toward heaven or toward earth, but when the word appears, we are usually reminded that on earth the Soul is exposed to time, to history, and to the power relations which may inhibit her, especially if she is a woman. The poems I am most interested in seem to emerge at the crux, or crossing, of kingdom and glory, in the nexus of power. Holding kingdom and glory in tension, these poems provide a discourse about power which says a great deal about one version of the nineteenth-century female imagination.

Interpreting the poems, however, involves locating one's critical practice itself within the nexus of power. As a feminist critic, I must evaluate a number of critical strategies already in place. If New Criticism tended to prefer the glory of Dickinson's work, feminist criticism inevitably concerns itself with the kingdom, with patriarchy, and with the power relations which affect language use itself.

A recent fashion in feminist criticism is to tell success stories. Having passed beyond telling the stories of women as victims, we now celebrate the way women writers remained undefeated and managed to subvert oppressive male power structures embodied in both social and literary conventions. The virtues of this criticism are often its courage, imagination, and gusto. However, my problem with it is that it seems at times to lack fidelity and sensitivity to the past. Also, by emphasizing transcendence, it minimizes the effects of patriarchy and thus subtly reinforces its hold over our past and our present.

Let me be more specific in respect to the case of Emily Dickinson. It is now fashionable to celebrate Dickinson's withdrawal from the world, to acknowledge her cleverness in avoiding various forms of social oppression many nineteenth-century women who led more normal lives had to contend with. It is also fashionable for feminist critics to feel that they can find ample evidence for Dickinson's essential sympathies with feminism in her poems and letters. Certain facts about Dickinson's life and art provide at least a degree of friction against such theories, however.

Her fearfulness and dependency upon others late into her life, her choice of conservative Judge Lord as a lover, her dismissal of most women and admiration of powerful men, her mental breakdowns: all suggest that Dickinson's life is not quite the model of a successful feminist manipulation of circumstances we sometimes wish it to be.

Furthermore, Dickinson was not unusually concerned about being "a woman poet." At least her conscious dedication to gender-neutral philosophical issues in a great many poems distinguishes her from most other nineteenth-century American women poets and has led us as feminist critics to return again and again to the same comparatively small number of poems and letters which do address gender in some overt way.

In the space I have left I would like to consider a different way of reading Dickinson historically. The modus operandi I wish to adopt, which might loosely be called a form of post-structuralism, is in no sense unique to my reading of Dickinson. In fact, I wish only to confirm a set of strategies used occasionally and with varying degrees of success by many critics. Though not nearly as often situating herself in a gender-specific context as many of her female contemporary writers, Dickinson is more directly conscious of allying herself with power than they were. Her poems and letters are liberally sprinkled with references to power and certainly her language use exhibits a desire to equate poetry not with release of feeling, as many nineteenth-century poetesses did, but with the assumption of power and the defiance of tradition. One way of reading her historically is to consider the way her representation of power relations might have been affected by her experience of gender. Dickinson clearly admired power but her orientation to it was highly ambivalent and as such it both unites her to other women poets and reflects her position in a power structure which allies power with masculinity.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson was rare among her associates in being a woman who inspired Dickinson with a sense of earthly ascendancy. Even to miss her was power, as she says in letter #364, and from early to late Susan brings the word power to Emily Dickinson's mind. As late as 1882 she is writing to Susan: "Thank her dear power for having come, an Avalanche of Sun!" (L755).

It is usually men, however, who represent power in Dickinson's imagination. Higginson is a figure of power who often evokes the poet's most timid self. In the letter with which I began this essay, in addition to reflecting on the relationship between kingdom, power and glory, Dickinson compliments Higginson's letter for a "a spectral power in thought that walks alone," adding: "I would like to thank you for your great kindness but never try to lift the words which I cannot hold" (L 330). (Apparently he has been criticizing her diction.) She also poses as comparatively insignificant in a letter to Samuel Bowles. After her tribute to his influence in the lives of "so many," she confesses that she has no such range of impact. However, she further muses, "How extraordinary that Life's large Population contain so few of power to us" (L 275). In this reflection, she characteristically turns the tables. Though her power over others is limited, the power of most people to affect her is also limited. These two letters suggest two typical modes Dickinson employed in dealing with male power figures.

Clearly, Dickinson was attracted to masculine forms of power. She writes approvingly of a portrait of Tommaso Salvini in 1884 in terms that bring to mind her feelings about her father: "The brow is that of Deity—the eyes, those of the lost, but the power lies in the Throat—pleading, sovereign, savage—the panther and the dove!" (L 948). Her admiration for her father and the Master letters further confirm their attraction to stimulating versions of male force. And we must remember her involvement with the intimidating Judge Lord. She describes his face in these terms in 1885: "Had I not loved it, I had feared it, the Face had such ascension" (L967).

Even Dickinson's definitions of poetry are clothed in the rhetoric of power. "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it" (L342a). Art and power are sometimes used interchangeably.

But the synthesis power effects in Dickinson is always decaying into antithesis, into powerlessness, and that too is a fundamental property of her imagination and an indication of her shared relation to a gender-differentiated power structure. In order to explore why that might have been characteristic of her, it is helpful to look a little outside the usual critical structure and to bring to bear on Dickinson's work some of the insights of recent French feminist theory.

Helene Cixous begins her strange, provocative essay "Sorties" in The Newly-Born Woman with the following set of reflections:

Where is she? Activity/Passivity Sun/Moon Culture/Nature Day/Night

Father/Mother Head/Heart Intelligible/Palpable Logos/Pathos

Form, convex, step, advance, semen, progress Matter, concave, ground—where steps are taken, holding-and dumping ground.



Always the same metaphor: we follow it, it carries us, beneath all its figures, wherever discourse is organized. If we read or speak, the same thread or double braid is leading us throughout literature, philosophy, criticism, centuries of representation and reflection.

Thought has always worked through opposition, Speaking/Writing Parole/Ecriture High/Low

Through dual, hierarchical oppositions. Superior/Inferior, Myths, legends, books. Philosophical systems. Everywhere (where) ordering intervenes, where a law organizes what is thinkable by oppositions (dual, irreconcilable; or sublatable, dialectical). All these pairs of oppositions are couples. Does that mean something? Is the fact that Logocentrism subjects thought—all concepts, codes and values—to a binary system, related to "the" couple, man/woman? (63-63)

Cixous' provocative suggestion that we read a binary opposition between man and woman as the basis of many other paired oppositions in philosophical discourse is at the heart of my argument for a historical and gendered reading of Dickinson. We can, of course, search the poems for places where Dickinson consciously and directly reflects upon gender. If we are cultural critics, we can look for direct references to historical persons and events. However, we do not need to proceed in this way in order to find the impact of patriarchy on the poet's work. As a poet whose work is necessarily inscribed within the codes of nineteenth-century American bourgeois culture, Emily Dickinson could not fail to reproduce in part the structure of power relations in which she was enmeshed.

No cultural hegemony is absolute, however. Consider, for instance, this pair of statements about women and power made by two men of Dickinson's time and milieu. In his novel Miss Gilbert's Career, Josiah Holland, Dickinson's friend, congratulates his heroine for giving up her literary career in exchange for a career of marriage and self-sacrifice. Her need for power is re-routed so that it is no longer her own "imperious will" which she seeks to gratify. Holland writes: "She learned that a woman's truest career is lived in love's serene retirement—lived in feeding the native forces of her other self—lived in the career of her husband" (466). Here we have the common and recognizable version of true womanhood's relation to power: indirect, self-effacing, domestic, and predicated on the virtues of heart and hearth.

Austin Dickinson's description of the impact of women on some aspects of nineteenth-century culture is quite different, however. His opinion is that "the women count in our modern census. They have appeared above the surface in the last generation, and become a power, nowhere more than in parish affairs, where they have found a congenial field for their activities … They are hardly longer the power behind the throne; they are a good part of the throne itself' (Sewall, The Life, 121-22).

Leaving aside here the complex issues of biographical origins, of sincerity and authenticity raised by these quotations, let us acknowledge that they do point to a situation first experienced by middle-class American women in the nineteenth century: the situation of finding themselves able to operate in a public arena in relatively large numbers while they were at the same time deeply afflicted with a sense of guilt for betraying the ethical code of femininity and the domestic sphere. This is the double bind nimbly captured in Mary Kelley's title, Private Woman, Public Stage.

It is not enough to say that women were in many ways effectively powerless in nineteenth-century American bourgeois culture. We must also acknowledge that in parish activities, in education, in certain political causes, and as writers, middle-class women had more public influence than ever before. Many nineteenth-century women writers supported whole families with the proceeds of their writing. Lydia Sigourney could command $100 for four poems and $500 from Godey's Lady's Book for the use of her name on its title page. However, the cost of playing on the public stage, or entering the market, could be great as well. In the nineteenth century we see the first major alliance between creative women and madness.

Catherine Clement in her disquisition on "the hysteric" in The Newly-Born Woman gives us a set of highly-charged statements applicable to many guiltridden nineteenth-century women writers. Clement, in the essay called "The Guilty One," writes:

That is the easiest solution: keeping oneself in a state of permanent guilt is to constitute oneself as a subject. Caught up in themes which are not hers, repeating her cues, always somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, between a hypnotic and an excited state, she is not she, but through the play of identifications, she is successively each one of the others. They are going to help her become a subject: they are going to make her guilty. (46)

This is the way Clement describes the simultaneous attraction and threat represented by the powerful male intermediary to the talented but conflicted woman.

These interventions in the on-going discussion about women and power must serve as an introduction to my reading of two poems about power in Emily Dickinson's canon: "My life had stood a loaded gun" and "Behind me dips eternity." Both of these poems have been extensively discussed by others; few critics, however, have attempted to talk about the loaded gun poem as a particularly historical document.

The poem really clicks into place when we consider it as one written by a certain kind of woman in nineteenth-century America.

Let's look at the poem in more detail:

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun— In Corners—till a Day The Owner passed—identified— And carried Me away— And now We roam in Sovreign Woods— And now We hunt the Doe— And every time I speak for Him— The Mountains straight reply— And do I smile, such cordial light Upon the Valley glow— It is as a Vesuvian face Had let it's pleasure through— And when at Night—Our good Day done— I guard My Master's Head— 'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's Deep Pillow—to have shared— To foe of His—I'm deadly foe— None stir the second time— On whom I lay a Yellow Eye— Or an emphatic Thumb— Though I than He—may longer live He longer must—than I— For I have but the power to kill. Without—the power to die—

Written about 1863, this poem examines the effects of assuming certain kinds of power. A moral focus is conspicuously absent as a divining rod until the last stanza where the speaker with only "the power to kill" reveals her morally compromised position. The poem does a double take, strangely, in that last stanza. Up until this point, the reader is invited to see the speaker's newly assumed identity as beneficial and even heroic. The Wordsworthian mountains echo her speech, the day done has been a "good day," a strenuous day more satisfying than sleeping on a downy pillow. Only the third stanza with its "Vesuvian face" throws an eerie light over this whole proceeding. It's worth remembering that Mount Vesuvius erupted a number of times during the 1850s climaxing with a particularly fearsome and destructive eruption in 1861. Should we ignore the threat implied in a volcanic eruption? Up until the final stanza the poet seems peculiarly unwilling to judge negatively this assumption of destructive force. A variant for "None stir the second time" is "None harm the second time," again suggesting that the gun's destructive force is not morally suspect since it is used defensively.

However, the final stanza clearly introduces a new emotion into the poem. The emotion is guilt. I agree with Barbara Clarke Mossberg that this poem represents "an array of conflicting attitudes toward art and the self, which result in severe identity conflict" (23). The poem is hysterical in certain ways and that hysteria must be understood in the historical context of a continent and a century in which women were invited to assume certain sorts of power while at the same time subtly tortured for their desires to do so.

Let us go back to Catherine Clement's description of the hysterical woman as "the guilty one": she has been possessed by her doctors. They have offered her the chance to become a subject. "Caught up in themes which are not hers, repeating her cues, always somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, between a hypnotic and an excited state, she is not she, but through the play of identifications, she is successively each one of the others. They are going to help her become a subject: they are going to make her guilty." This is the position described by the female gun self.

From my point of view, this poem is not a confession of the poet's personal misery, however. Richard Sewall provides a helpful reminder in his biography that the Springfield Republican used the eider-duck image in an 1860 article discouraging women poets from writing "the literature of misery." The speaker here rejects the eider duck's deep pillow. Instead of being a confessional poem, this work is closer to a definitional exploration of a certain kind of power.

My intuition is that Dickinson began this poem with the intention of writing another celebration of her relation to the Master Force. This would connect the first stanza, at least, to other works like "I'm ceded, I've stopped being theirs," "He put the belt around my life," and "A wife at daybreak I shall be." There is a sense of strain in the poem, however, as though as she went along—at first admiring the power conferred upon the speaker by her relation to the Owner—another set of issues presented itself in her mind. What does it mean for a woman to subsume herself so totally in the life of a masculine presence? The metatext begins to unravel the text by suggesting the destructiveness of a pure instrumentality. Negative associations with power lurch through the backcountry of the poetic landscape.

Without the owner, the speaker cannot speak at all. She cannot roam in "Sovreign Woods," that is, in the forest protected for the king's own hunting, the forest of patriarchal power. However, the cost of accepting this empowerment is hunting the doe, killing off her linkage to female life, and surrendering a maternal, nurturing influence like that of the eider duck (known to cushion her babies by feathering her nest with down plucked from her own breast). Though we cannot help feeling the emphatic thumb of the poet's conscious attempt to make us admire this power through most of the poem, we also cannot ignore the accumulation of underground hints of guilt.

At the end, the speaker seems to throw up her hands in horror at the satanic bargain she has made. As a ventriloquist's dummy, as a pure instrument of another's force, she has surrendered her status as a subject. Power can only be understood as part of an oppositional pair in juxtaposition with powerlessness as life can only be lived fully with the knowledge of death as its terminus. Having agreed to speak only for him, the gun seals his immortality while at the same time accepting the status of non-being for herself. The power to kill involves the preliminary death of the self recorded in the gun's admission that she no longer has the power to die. She is already dead. The speaker has become not a self, as she had hoped, but a mouthpiece.

As we watch the sovereign female self assume the mantle of power in the poem only to turn that mantle inside out at the end in a confession of guilt and powerlessness, we witness a ritual performed again and again in the nineteenth century by creative women, for whom power, once admired, turns ugly and self-destructive. Toward the end of the century, Ella Wheeler Wilcox summed it up in Men, Women and Emotions (1893): "Seen from a distance, fame may seem to a woman like a sea bathed in tropical suns, wherein she longs to sail. Let fame once be hers, she finds it a prairie fire consuming or scorching all that is dearest in life to her. Be careful before you light these fires with your own hands" (291). As in so many statements of its kind, for the more narrow instance of fame, we might very well substitute the broader, more threatening term: power.

Another poem in which fears for a female self emerge is "Behind me dips eternity" (# 721).

Behind Me—dips Eternity— Before Me—Immortality— Myself—the Term between— Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,

Dissolving into Dawn away, Before the West begin— 'Tis Kingdoms—afterward—they say— In perfect—pauseless Monarchy— Whose Prince—is Son of None— Himself—His Dateless Dynasty— Himself—Himself diversify— In Duplicate divine— 'Tis Miracle before Me—then— 'Tis Miracle behind—between— A Crescent in the Sea— With Midnight to the North of Her— and Midnight to the South of Her— And Maelstrom—in the Sky—

Reading this poem in a gendered historical context, I am particularly struck by the speaker's positioning of herself in terms of these two axes: An east-west metaphysics rendered male and a north-south temporal realm rendered female. In a century which at least paid considerable lip service to the notion of separate spheres of gender, in a country in which those spheres have paradigms in Puritan gender divisions predicated on Adam and Eve, the poet seems both to invoke and to revoke conventional mappings of power. This poem can be read as the poet's self-insertion of the female into history: "Myself—the Term between." His power, from this point of view, looks comparatively lifeless. As under the aegis of the patriarchal god, patriarchal authority clones itself repeatedly in what Cixous might call a "repetition of the same," the speaker understands her position as not merely personal (an I's position) but generic (a Her's position). "With Midnight to the North of Her-/ And Midnight to the South of Her," she has no points of reference to determine her own power, however. Might not this "Maelstrom in the Sky" suggest a whirlpool of male force threatening to derange her "crescent in the sea"? It will take a miracle of a different kind to preserve her from harm.

My intention in this brief textual discussion has been to make an argument not only for the plausibility of historical, gender-sensitive criticism but for its continuing exfoliation. To the extent that we can find new ways of decoding the power relations which operate both behind and within literature we open up new ways of seeing our own linguistic situations in the present. As Toril Moi puts it in Sexual/Textual Politics, "It is necessary to deconstruct the opposition between traditionally 'masculine' and traditionally 'feminine' values and to confront the full political force and reality of such categories" (160). This means locating a feminist critical practice along two axes, ignoring neither the kingdom which circumscribed an Emily Dickinson nor the glory which she learned to appropriate for her art.

Works Cited

All references to the poems and letters of Emily Dickinson are taken from the following sources and reflect the numbering system used in these sources: The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1955; The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge, Mass.: 1958.

Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement. The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Holland, Josiah Gilbert. Miss Gilbert's Career. New York: Scribner's, 1860.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Mossberg, Barbara Antonina Clarke. Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1974.

Wilcox, Ella Wheeler. Men, Women, and Emotions. Chicago: Mirrill, Higgins, 1893.

Paula Bennett (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7104

SOURCE: "The Pea That Duty Locks: Lesbian and Feminist-Heterosexual Readings of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," in Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, edited by Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 104-25.

[In the following essay, Bennett challenges feminist critics who study Dickinson "as a woman poet" but within the context of Dickinson's "relationship to the male tradition." Bennett asserts that Dickinson's erotic poetry suggests that the poet viewed her relationships with women as safe and protected, and that these relationships allowed Dickinson to explore her sexuality.]

[The clitoris] is endowed with the most intense erotic sensibility, and is probably the prime seat of that peculiar life power, although not the sole one.

—Charles D. Meigs, Woman: Her Diseases and Remedies, 1851

One would have to dig down very deep indeed to discover … some clue to woman's sexuality. That extremely ancient civilization would undoubtedly have a different alphabet, a different language…. Woman's desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man's.

—Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 1985

In a 1985 essay in Feminist Studies, Margaret Homans brilliantly analyzes Emily Dickinson's use of vaginal imagery ("lips") as a multivalent figure for female sexual and poetic power ("'Syllables'" 583-86, 591). Homans quite rightly identifies Dickinson's concept of the volcanic "lips that never lie" in "A still—Volcano—Life" (The Poems 461)1 with the genital/lingual lips from which the hummingbird sucks in "All the letters I can write":

All the letters I can write Are not fair as this— Syllables of Velvet— Sentences of Plush, Depths of Ruby, undrained, Hid, Lip, for Thee—

Play it were a Humming Bird— And just sipped—me—(#334)

Less happily, Homans treats Dickinson's use of genital imagery entirely within the context of the (male) tradition of the romantic love lyric (that is, as a "subversion" of the "scopic" economy, or visual orientation, of masculinist love poetry). Not only does she fail to discuss the poem's homoerotic or lesbian possibilities, she barely notes them—this despite the fact that the poem's only known variant was originally sent—with a flower—to a woman, Dickinson's cousin, Eudocia (Converse) Flynt, of Monson, Massachusetts. For Homans, text—not sex—is the issue.

As in "A still—Volcano—Life," the imagery in "All the letters I can write" is undoubtedly (if not necessarily, consciously) sexual. The reader-lover-bird is told to sip from the well-hidden "depths" of the poet-vagina-flower: "lip" to lips. But the form of sexual congress which the poet fantasizes in this poem is—as Homans fails to specify—oral; and the sex of the beloved-reader-bird is left deliberately (though, for Dickinson, not a typically), vague. He/she/you is referred to as "it." If this poem overturns the scopic conventions of the male-dominated romantic love lyric, it does so not to critique male "gaze," but to celebrate a kind of sexuality the poet refuses, or is unable, to name.

Because of her ambiguity, which makes variant readings such as the above not only possible but inevitable, Dickinson has become a preeminent example of the splitting of feminist criticism along sexual orientation lines. To those critics who read the poet heterosexually, the central narrative of Dickinson's career is her struggle with the male tradition—whether this tradition is seen as embodied in her lover, father, God, muse, or merely her precursor poets. Critics writing from this perspective (which represents, in effect, a feminist retelling of traditional mainstream narratives of the poet's career) include, in chronological order, Gilbert and Gubar, Margaret Homans, Joanne Feit Diehl, Barbara Antonina Clarke Mossberg, Suzanne Juhasz, Vivian Pollak, Jane Donahue Eberwein, Helen McNeil, Alicia Ostriker, and, most recently, Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Although all of these critics are deeply committed to understanding Dickinson as a woman poet, the framework for their discussion is the poet's relationship to the male tradition. Their concern is with "woman's place in man's world," even when, as in Homans's case, they acknowledge the presence of homoerotic strands in the poet's life and work.

In contrast to these critics are those like Rebecca Patterson, Lillian Faderman, Adalaide Morris, Judy Grahn, Martha Nell Smith, Toni McNaron and myself, who believe that Dickinson's relationships with women are of greater significance than her struggles with men or with the male tradition. While lesbian critics do not necessarily deny the prominence of certain male figures in Dickinson's life, they have dug beneath the more mythic aspects of the poet's heterosexuality (in particular, her supposed "love affair" with a "Master") to uncover the ways in which Dickinson used her relationships to the female and to individual women such as her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson to empower herself as a woman and poet. To these critics, the central struggle in Dickinson's career is not, as Joanne Feit Diehl puts it, "to wrest an independent vision" from the male ("Reply" 196),2 but to find a way to identify and utilize specifically female power in her work.

While both heterosexual and lesbian/feminist readings of Dickinson exemplify what Elaine Showalter calls "gynocritisicm" (128), that is, both focus on the woman as writer, the difference between these two approaches to the poet—one privileging the male, the other the female—results in remarkably different presentations, of Dickinson's biography and art. In this essay, I will discuss what happens to our reading of Dickinson's poetry when we give priority to her homoeroticism—and what happens when we do not. In particular, I will focus on the ways in which the privileging of homoeroticism affects our interpretation of Dickinson's erotic poetry as this poetry projects Dickinson's sense of self as a woman and as a woman poet (the two issues raised by Homans's essay).

For "straight" readers of Dickinson's texts, the poet's struggle with the tradition is mediated through her relationship with a man whom history has come to call the "Master," since his biographical identity (if any) has yet to be confirmed. Whoever or whatever this man was to the poet—whether lover, father, God, or muse—Dickinson's relationship to him is, according to this view of her texts, fundamental to her poetic development—the means by which she came to define herself. In response to critiques by Lillian Faderman and Louise Bernikow of her theory of a male muse in Dickinson's poetry, Joanne Feit Diehl articulates the underlying assumptions governing the feminist-heterosexual approach to the Master Phenomenon in Dickinson's work:

Bemikow's and Faderman's remarks offer nothing that would cause me to change my assertion that Dickinson found herself by confronting a maledominated tradition. My essay acknowledges that she sought inspiration and courage from women poets engaged in similar struggles toward self-definition; however, hundreds of poems attest that her primary confrontations are with the male self. Furthermore, it is Dickinson who enables later women poets to trace a more exclusively female lineage. Refusing to ignore the tradition Bernikow and Faderman would deny her, Dickinson confronts her masculine precursors to wrest an independent vision. No woman poet need ever feel so alone again. ("Reply" 196)

The key word here is "alone." Like a latter-day feminist confronting a totally male-dominated environment (whether home, office, or academic department), Dickinson struggles in isolation to "wrest" vision from a male figure (or "tradition") infinitely more powerful than herself, a figure whom she wishes both to seduce and to defy. Because her Master is superior to her—and, perhaps, because she does love him—the form her struggle takes is (as Alicia Ostriker puts it), "subversive" not rebellious (39). Dickinson's tools are traditional female weapons, the "weapons" of those who are subordinate and isolated: play, parody, duplicity, evasion, illogic, silence, role-playing, and renunciation. As Ostriker says of the first five, they are strategies "still practiced by women poets today" (43).

For this particular interpretation of the poet and her plight, "The Daisy follows soft the Sun" has, not surprisingly, become the signature poem, mentioned or analyzed in a striking number of feminist-heterosexual readings:3

The Daisy follows soft the Sun— And when his golden walk is done— Sits shily at his feet— He—waking—finds the flower there— Wherefore—Maurauder—art thou here? Because, Sir, love is sweet! We are the Flower—Thou the Sun! Forgive us, if as days decline— We nearer steal to Thee! Enamored of the parting West— The peace—the flight—the Amethyst— Night's possibility!(#106)

In light of the above discussion, the reason for this poem's appeal to feminist-heterosexual readers should be obvious. Duplicity and subversion are the Daisy's essence. Cloaking herself in a veil of modesty (sitting "shily" at her Master's "feet"), the speaker claims to "follow" the Sun all simplicity and adoration, when in fact her real aim is to "steal" from him at night what he will not allow her to have by day: call it love, poetry, or power. The Daisy's reverence for her Master may be sincere, but it is also a cloak for highly disobedient ("Marauder"-like) ambitions, ambitions which only "Night's possibility"—and the Sun's "decline"—can fulfill.

I have no quarrel with this reading of the poem or those like it on which it is based. As Diehl's "hundreds of poems" testify, Dickinson was both attracted to and jealous of male power (from her brother's to God's), and she sought a variety of ways, including duplicity and subversion, seduction and evasion, and maybe even fantasies of madness and necrophilia, to compensate for—or to change the conditions of—her unwanted subordination. Indeed, the poet's need to claim power equal to the male's is the primary theme of most of her heterosexual love poetry. His is the "Shaggier Vest" against which she asserts her smaller "Acorn" size ("One Year ago—jots what?" #296). His is the "crown" or "name" she wants to bear ("The face I carry with me—last," #336), even if she—and he—must die in order for her to have it:

Think of it Lover! I and Thee Permitted—face to face to be— After a Life—a Death—We'll say— For Death was That— And This—is Thee— … . . Forgive me, if the Grave come slow— For Coveting to look at Thee— Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost Outvisions Paradise!(from #577)

When writing heterosexually, Dickinson apparently could not imagine achieving equality in any other way. Men had the power. For her to have power equal to her male lover's, she had to take, steal, or seduce it from him—or they both had to be dead. Given nineteenth-century gender arrangements (including the arrangements within the Dickinson household), it is not surprising that the poet thought of heterosexual relationships in this way. But this is not the only kind of "love" poem that Dickinson wrote, nor is this the only kind of love story (or story about power) her poems tell.

As research by feminist historians Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lillian Faderman suggests, the rigid separation of the sexes produced by nineteenth-century American gender arrangements did not totally disadvantage women (Smith-Rosenberg 53-76, Faderman, Surpassing, 147-230). True, women spoke of themselves typically as "low" or "inferior" in respect to men. These are terms Dickinson herself uses in variants to a poem on Elizabeth Barrett Browning (#593). But nineteenth-century women were not solely reliant on their relationships with men for their sense of personal or sexual power (as heterosexual woman in our society tend to be today). On the contrary, one of the ironies of the doctrine of separate spheres was that it encouraged women to form close affectional bonds with each other. Within these bonds, women were able to affirm themselves and their female power despite their presumably inferior state.

Dickinson's letters and poems indicate that she participated in such relationships with women throughout her life and, as I have discussed elsewhere (My Life a Loaded Gun 27-37, 55-63), she drew an enormous amount of comfort, both emotional and sexual, from them. Indeed, a study of Dickinson's erotic poetry suggests that it was precisely the safety and protection offered by her relationships with women—that is, by relationships in which sameness not difference was the dominant factor (Morris in Juhasz 103 and passim)—that allowed her full access to her sexual feelings. Unlike unambiguously hetero-sexual poets such as Plath, Wakoski, and Olds, Dickinson did not find male difference exciting. She was awed, frightened, and, finally, repelled by it. In her often-quoted "man of noon" letter, sent to Susan Gilbert prior to the latter's engagement to Austin, the poet's brother, Dickinson compares male love to a sun that "scorches" and "scathes" women (The Letters 210). And in her poetry, she exhibits similar anxieties. Thus, for example, in "In Winter in my Room," she depicts male sexuality as a snake "ringed with Power" from whom her speaker flees in terror:

I shrank—"How fair you are"! Propitiation's claw— "Afraid he hissed Of me"? … . . That time I flew Both eyes his way Lest he pursue (from #1670)

And this same response of mingled awe and repulsion is repeated more subtly in other poems as well: "I started Early—Took my Dog," (#520) for instance, and "I had been hungry, all the Years" (#579). In each of these poems, the poet's fear of male sexuality—not the arousal of her desire—is the operative emotion. If she cannot find some way to reduce male power, to bring it under control, then she either loses her appetite for it (as in "I had been hungry, all the Years") or else she pulls back before she is engulfed (as in "I started Early—Took my Dog"). As she says in the latter poem, she feared male desire "would eat me up" (#520).

When relating to women, on the other hand, or when describing female sexuality (her own included), Dickinson's poetry could not be more open, eager, and lush. Permeated with images of beauty, nurturance, and protectiveness, and typically oral in emphasis, this poetry bespeaks the poet's overwhelming physical attraction to her own sex, and her faith in the power of her own sexuality even when, as in the following poem, Dickinson is presumably writing from a heterosexual point of view:

I tend my flowers for thee— Bright Absentee! My Fuschzia's Coral Seams Rip—while the Sower—dreams— Geraniums—tint—and spot— Low Daisies—dot— My Cactus—splits her Beard To show her throat— Carnations—tip their spice— And Bees—pick up— A Hyacinth—I hid— Puts out a Ruffled head— And odors fall From flasks—so small— You marvel how they held— Globe Roses—break their satin flake— Upon my Garden floor—(from #339)

At the conclusion of this poem, the speaker vows to "dwell in Calyx—Gray," modestly draping herself while "Her Lord" is away, but the damage, so-to-speak, has already been done. The entire emphasis in the poem lies in the speaker's riotous delight in the sensual joys that female sexuality has to offer. Like a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe or Judy Chicago, "I tend my flowers" takes us into the very heart of the flower: its sight, smell, taste, and feel. It is all coral and satin, spice and rose. In its image of the budding hyacinth coming into bloom, it could well be orgasmic.

As in "The Daisy follows soft the Sun," Dickinson employs a heterosexual context in "I tend my flowers" in order to assert female sexuality subversively, but her focus is obviously on female sexuality itself. It is this (not the charms of her absent male lover) that evokes the poet's intensely colored verse, her sensual reveries. When writing outside a specifically heterosexual context, as in the following poems, Dickinson is able to revel in female sexuality's Edenic pleasures without apology or restraint:

Come slowly—Eden! Lips unused to Thee— Bashful—sip thy Jessamines— As the fainting Bee— Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums—

Counts his nectars— Enters—and is lost in Balms.(#211)

Wild Nights—Wild Nights! Were I with thee Wild Nights should be Our luxury! … . . Rowing in Eden— Ah, the Sea! Might I but moor—Tonight— In Thee!(from #249)

Within that little Hive Such Hints of Honey lay As made Reality a Dream And Dreams, Reality—(#1607)

As Lillian Faderman first observed of "Wild Nights" ("Homoerotic Poetry" 20), these poems are all written from what we would normally think of as a male perspective. That is, they are written from the perspective of one who enters, not one who is entered. Because of this ambiguity, they effectively exclude the male. ("He" is at most a male bee, and hence, being small and round, equivocally, as we shall see, a female symbol.) The poems focus on female sexuality instead. "At sea" with this sexuality, Dickinson's speaker bathes in bliss and moors herself in wonder, eats hidden honey, adds up her nectars and is "lost in balms." The undisguised lushness of the imagery, especially when compared to Dickinson's poems on male sexuality, speaks for itself. For Dickinson, the dangerous aspects of sexual power lay with the male—the power to devour, scorch, and awe. The sweetness and balm (the healing) of sexuality, as well as its abundant pleasures, lay in women. And it was within this basically homoerotic context (a context created and sustained by nineteenth-century female bonding) that Dickinson defines her own desire.

As I discuss in Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, in the poetry in which Dickinson privileges the clitoris even more than in the poetry in which she extols the delights of vaginal entry, she puts into words her subjective awareness of this desire and its paradoxical "little-big" nature. In this poetry, a poetry characterized by images drawn from the "neighboring life"—dews, crumbs, berries, and peas—Dickinson (in Irigaray's words) digs beneath the layers of male civilization to recover the ancient language of female sexuality itself (25). As Dickinson says in a poem sent to Susan Gilbert Dickinson in 1858, it is a language that sings a "different tune":

She did not sing as we did— It was a different tune— Herself to her a music As Bumble bee of June … . . I split the dew— But took the morn— I chose this single star From out the wide night's numbers— Sue—forevermore! (from #14)

In Literary Women Ellen Moers observes that women writers—including Dickinson—have a predilection for metaphors of smallness which Moers relates to their small physical size. "Littleness," she writes, "is inescapably associated with the female body, and as long as writers describe women they will all make use of the diminutive in language and the miniature in imagery" (244). Even though Moers summarizes these metaphors suggestively as "the little hard nut, the living stone, something precious … to be fondled with the hand or cast away in wrath" (244), she does not identify such images as clitoral. However, I believe that we should. Indeed, I believe that we must if we are to understand how a great many women—not just Dickinson—have traditionally (if, perhaps, unconsciously) chosen to represent their difference to themselves.

As nineteenth-century gynecologists such as Charles D. Meigs recognized over a hundred and forty years ago (a recognition "lost" later in the century), the clitoris is the "prime seat" of erotic sensibility in woman just as its homologue, the penis, is the prime seat in man (130).4 It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the clitoris's size, shape, and function contribute as much to a woman's sense of self—her inner perception of her power—as does her vagina or womb—the sexual organs on which psychoanalytic critics since Freud have chosen to concentrate.5 Images of smallness in women's writing unquestionably relate to woman's body size and to her social position. But like phallic images (which also serve these other purposes), such images have a sexual base, and so does the power women so paradoxically attribute to them. In identifying their "little hard nut[s]" with "something precious," women are expressing through their symbolism their body's subjective consciousness of itself. That is, they are expressing their conscious or unconscious awareness of the organic foundation of their (oxymoronic) sexual power.

The existence of a pattern of imagery involving small, round objects in Dickinson's writing cannot be disputed. Whether identified as male or female, bees alone appear 125 times in her poetry. Dews, crumbs, pearls, and berries occur 111 times, and with peas, pebbles, pellets, beads, and nuts, the total number of such images comes to 261. In the context of the poems in which they appear, many of these images are neutral, that is, they seem to have no sexual significance. But their repetitiveness is another matter. So is the way in which they are given primacy in many poems. Analysis of the latter suggests that on the deepest psychological level, these images represented to the poet her subjective awareness of her female sexual self, both its "littleness" (when compared to male sex) and the tremendous force nevertheless contained within it. In privileging this imagery, consciously or unconsciously, Dickinson was replacing the hierarchies of male-dominated heterosexual discourse—hierarchies that disempowered her as woman and poet—with a (paradoxical) clitorocentrism of her own, affirming her specifically female power.

Over and over clitoral images appear in Dickinson's poetry as symbols of an indeterminate good in which she delights, yet which she views as contradictory in one way or another. It is small yet great, modest yet vain, not enough yet all she needs. The following poem brings together many of these motifs:

God gave a Loaf to every Bird— But just a Crumb—to Me— I dare not eat it—tho' I starve— My poignant luxury— To own it—touch it— Prove the feat—that made the Pellet mine— Too happy—for my Sparrow's chance— For Ampler Coveting— It might be Famine—all around— I could not miss an Ear— Such Plenty smiles upon my Board— My Garner shows so fair— I wonder how the Rich—may feel— An Indiaman—An Earl— I deem that I—with but a Crumb— Am Sovreign of them all—(#791)

There are a number of things to note here. First, the poet is undecided whether the crumb in her possession satisfies her physical or her material appetite. In the first three stanzas it takes care of her hunger (albeit, by touching). In the fourth stanza it makes her wealthy, an "Indiaman" or "Earl." She also cannot decide whether she is starving or not. For while she can touch and feel the crumb, she cannot eat it. Owning it is, therefore, a paradoxical business. It is a "poignant luxury," that is, a deeply affecting, possibly hurtful, sumptuousness that has archaic overtones of lust. Finally, poor though she is, the crumb makes this sparrow a "Sovreign," that is, it gives her power. She prefers it to "an Ear," presumably an ear of corn, and hence, given the poem's erotic suggestiveness, a phallus.

From one point of view, this poem is, obviously, a stunning example of Dickinson's ambiguity. Despite the many terms whose status as erotic signifiers can be established by reference to passages elsewhere in her work (loaf, bird, eat, luxury, sparrow, famine, plenty, Indiaman, earl, sovereign), there is no way to "know" what the poem is about. Not only do masturbation and cunnilingus fit but so do having a male or female lover, having some other unnamed good instead, sharing communion with God, and being content with her small/great lot as poet.

But whatever reading one adopts, what matters is that Dickinson has used imagery based upon her body as the primary vehicle through which to make her point. Whether or not she intended this poem to be about the clitoris, the clitoris is the one physical item in a woman's possession that pulls together the poem's disparate and conflicting parts. What other single crumb satisfies a woman's appetite even though she cannot eat it, and gives her the power of a "Sovreign" (potent male) whoever she is? In trying to represent her sense of self and the paradoxes of her female situation, consciously or unconsciously, Dickinson was drawn to what she loved most: the body she inhabited, the body she shared with other women. And it is the specific and extraordinary power of this body, its sovereign littleness, that she celebrates in this poem. As she says in another poem, this was the "crumb" for which she sang. As figure and fact, it was the source, motivation, and substance of her song:

The Robin for the Crumb Returns no syllable But long records the Lady's name In Silver Chronicle.(#864)

By giving primacy to a clitoral image in this poem, Dickinson is asserting a form of female textuality and female sexuality that falls explicitly outside the male tradition. The song this "Robin" sings is "Silver," not golden like the sun/son. It is a "chronicle" that records "the Lady's," not her Master's, "name." And because it is female, it is written in different "syllables" from those of male verse, syllables drawn from the backyard life to which Dickinson's "lot" as a woman had consigned her—the life of robins, bees, and, above all, crumbs. From this life comes the "alphabet" in which female desire is reco(r)ded, an alphabet suited to the very different "Pleasure" loving women (as opposed to loving men) gives rise:

There is an arid Pleasure— As different from Joy— As Frost is different from Dew— Like element—are they— Yet one—rejoices Flowers— And one—the Flowers abhor— The finest Honey—curdled— Is worthless—to the Bee—(#782)6

For Dickinson, devoting oneself to this homoerotic pleasure inevitably meant writing a different kind of verse:

As the Starved Maelstrom laps the Navies As' the Vulture teazed Forces the Broods in lonely Valleys As the Tiger eased By but a Crumb of Blood, fasts Scarlet Till he meet a Man Dainty adorned with Veins and Tissues And partakes—his Tongue Cooled by the Morsel for a moment Grows a fiercer thing Till he esteem his Dates and Cocoa A Nutrition mean I, of a finer Famine Deem my Supper dry For but a Berry of Domingo And a Torrid Eye.(#872)

In the first three stanzas of this poem, Dickinson compares the "malestorm"7 created by male appetite sequentially—and hyperbolically—to a whirlpool, a vulture, and a man-eating tiger. In the final stanza, she celebrates her own "finer Famine," satisfied with "a Berry of Domingo/And a Torrid Eye." The theater of blood and lust which Dickinson depicts in the first three stanzas of this poem is so blatantly exaggerated it seems meant to be humorous. Male appetite is so voracious, the speaker claims, it will consume anything, including, finally, itself. (I read both "Crumb of Blood" and "Dates and Cocoa" as references to women.) In the final stanza, the speaker proudly asserts her own "limited" appetite by way of comparison. It is this appetite which defines her, making her the woman and poet she is: "I, of a finer Famine."

For Dickinson this "finer Famine" was a "sumptuous Destitution" (#/1382), a paradoxical source of power and poetry, that nourished her throughout her life. In 1864, the same year in which she wrote "As the Starved Maelstrom laps the Navies," she sent Susan the following poem.

The luxury to apprehend The luxury 'twould be To look at Thee a single time An Epicure of Me In whatsoever Presence makes Till for a further food I scarcely recollect to starve So first am I supplied— The luxury to meditate The luxury it was To banquet on the Countenance A Sumptuousness bestows On plainer Days, Whose Table, far As Certainty—can see— Is laden with a single Crumb— The Consciousness of Thee.(#815 Version to Sue)

And in a letter written to Susan in 1883, she declared: "To be Susan is Imagination,/To have been Susan, a Dream—/What depths of Domingo in that torrid Spirit!" (The Letters 791). Over the twenty years that intervened between these poems and this letter, Dickinson's patterns of female sexual imagery and the homoerotic values these patterns encoded did not substantially change. Taken together, they were the "berries," "crumbs," and "dews" that—in imagination and in reality—nourished and sustained her as male love (and the male literary tradition) never could.

The importance of Dickinson's commitment to a womancentered sexuality and textuality seems hard to dispute. But why then have so many feminist critics found it difficult to acknowledge the centrality of Dickinson's homoeroticism to her writing? Put another way, why have so many of them insisted on depicting her, in Diehl's terms, as "alone," even when (given her bonds to other women), she was not? What follows is not meant as a personal attack on these critics, but rather as an exploration of what I believe to be one of the most difficult issues confronting feminist-heterosexual women today—an issue whose political and sexual nature Dickinson was not only aware of but which she addressed in her poetry.

In This Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray makes the following comments on the (heterosexual) woman's place in the "dominant phallic economy," that is, in male-dominated culture:

Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man's fantasies. That she may find pleasure there in that role, by proxy, is possible, even certain. But such pleasure is above all a masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar state of dependency upon man. Not knowing what she wants, ready for anything, even asking for more, so long as he will "take" her as his "object" when he seeks his own pleasure. (25).

Women, Irigaray argues, have been "enveloped in the needs/desires/fantasies of … men" (134). As such, they have been cut off from their own sexuality. In Irigaray's terms, they have learned to "masquerade" (133-34), assuming the sexual roles men have imposed upon them, while devaluing their own capacity for autonomous sexual response. As "conceptualized" within the phallic economy, Irigaray writes, "woman's erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex …" (23). That women can be sexually equal to men (agents, as it were, of their own desire) is an idea both men and (many) women resist.

The historical appropriation and devaluation of female sexuality by men is hardly news; women in the nineteenth century were also aware of it. But in "The Malay—took the Pearl," Dickinson gives this perception a twist by addressing it from a homoerotic perspective, that is, from a perspective shaped by the poet's (homoerotic) awareness of the role the clitoris plays in autonomous woman-centered sex:

The Malay—took the Pearl— Not—I—the Earl— I—feared the Sea—too much Unsanctified—to touch— Praying that I might be Worthy—the Destiny— The Swarthy fellow swam— And bore my Jewel—Home— Home to the Hut! What lot Had I—the Jewel—got— Borne on a Dusky Breast— I had not a deemed Vest Of Amber—fit— The Negro never knew I—wooed it—too To gain, or be undone— Alike to Him—One—(#452)

Whether the "Pearl" in this poem stands synecdochically for the woman Dickinson loved or metonymically for the sexual and poetic powers which the poet believed were hers,8 or, as is probable, for both, the poem's main point is clear. The "Jewel" that the Malay takes and then devalues (brings "Home" to his "hut") is an object of desire not just for the man but the speaker also. Indeed, the speaker (presumably a woman even though she cross-dresses as an "Earl") has far more title to the pearl than the Malay since she appreciates its true worth whereas he does not. (He wears it on a "Dusky," sun-darkened, "Breast" where she would not deem a "Vest/Of Amber—fit" to bear it.) Nevertheless, she feels she has no right to this prize. She "fears" to touch the sea.

In cross-dressing her speaker in this poem, Dickinson may be expressing some of the awkwardness or perhaps even "unnaturalness" she felt in attributing (active) sexual desire to herself as a woman. As a young woman, Dickinson's problem—as she states in "The Malay—took the Pearl" —had been to gather the courage to appropriate female power for herself, to see herself as equally "sanctified"—and sanctioned—to "dive" (or "climb") into forbidden territories, whether erotic or poetic. In maturity, she lashes out again and again at the damage done women psychologically by such self-serving (masculine) prohibitions, prohibitions that not only prevent women from maturing fully, but turn them into the passive objects of male desire (and male art). Not permitted to act on their own needs or in their own stead, women inevitably become the victims of the men who "envelop" them (or eat them up):

Over the fence— Strawberries—grow— Over the fence— I could climb—if I tried, I know— Berries are nice! But—if I stained my Apron God would certainly scold! Oh, dear,—I guess if He were a Boy— He'd—climb—if He could!(#251)

The little girl voice Dickinson adopts in this poem is deliberate and calculated. Boys have a right to "forbidden" fruits, but women (those whose sexual maturation is tied to—and "tied down" by—apron strings) do not. Yet, as this poem's symbolism makes clear, it is precisely women who are the "Berries" that boys so eagerly pick. Hence men's desire to guard their access to this fruit by divine interdiction. The God men worship (or create) protects male right.

What Dickinson is alluding to in this poem is—and has historically been—the paradox (and tragedy) of female sexuality: that its power is something women themselves have been forbidden to enjoy. It is a paradox Dickinson gives brilliant expression to in one of her most teasing yet trenchant epigrams:

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has That lawful Orchards mocks— How luscious lies within the Pod The Pea that Duty locks—(#1377)

Whether this poem is about cunnilingus, masturbation, or something else altogether, the sexual implications of its final line are hard to evade. "Duty," that is, women's sense of obligation to a male-dominated culture's self-serving prohibitions, has made women's sexuality inaccessible to them. Women's loss of their sexuality occurred literally during the nineteenth century as they were propagandized to believe that they did not have orgasms. As we now know, in the space of less than fifty years, the physiological importance of the clitoris was expunged from the record and apparently from many women's conscious awareness as well (Laqueur 1-41).

Symbolically, this silencing of female sexual power continues to occur today in the writing of those critics, including those feminist critics, who ignore the significance of the homoerotic (and autoerotic) elements in poetry like Dickinson's. Indeed, feminist-heterosexual interpretations of Dickinson's poetry testify all too vividly to the degree to which, as Irigaray says, female sexuality remains "enveloped" in the needs and desires of men, despite the womancenteredness of feminist vision. Committed to a heterosexual perspective (a perspective that makes women sexually as well as emotionally and intellectually dependent on men, no matter how much they may compete with them for power), these critics cannot see the centrality of Dickinson's homoeroticism even when—as in her clitoral poetry—it is obviously there. They cannot decode the "alphabet" in which these poems are written. Dickinson's relationship to the Master (a paradigm, perhaps, for these critics' own relationship to what Diehl calls "the male self) overwhelms ("envelopes") their eyes.

No one understood the magnitude of the task involved in women's reappropriation of their sexual power better than Dickinson and there were times when she questioned whether her "Pebble" was adequate to the task. It was a struggle of epic proportion in which she was David (indeed, less than David) to her culture's Goliath:

I took my Power in my Hand— And went against the World— 'Twas not so much as David—had— But I—was twice as bold— I aimed my Pebble—but Myself Was all the one that fell— Was it Goliath—was too large— Or was myself—too small?(from #540)

But there were other times when she was able to assert without reservation her absolute right to the "Crown" she knew was hers:

I'm ceded—I've stopped being Their's— The name They dropped upon my face With water, in the country church Is finished using, now … My second Rank—too small the first— Crowned—Crowing—on my Father's breast— A half unconscious Queen— But this time—Adequate—Erect, With Will to choose, or to reject, And I choose, just a Crown (from #508)

The full impact of these lines can only be appreciated when they are read against those poems in which the speaker yearns pathetically for her Master's "Crown." In this poem, she stands masculinely "Erect" and crowns herself. Doing so, she takes back the symbol of her womanhood that men have usurped. In baptizing their daughters (as in wedding their wives), men give their names to women, making them "half unconscious Queens"—Queens who are not in full possession of their power (their "Crown"). In "I'm ceded," these rights (and rites) of male possession come to an end. The woman's vagina-ring-crown is hers. So presumably is the personal (creative) power—the "crumb"—that goes with it.

As I have asserted in Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, Dickinson's ability to pose female sexuality and textuality as valid, autonomous alternatives to male sexuality and textuality derives from her romantic commitment to women and from her willingness to see in women sources of love, power, and pleasure independent of what Mary Lyon calls "the other sex" (Quoted by Hitchcock, 301). Her use of female sexual imagery suggests, therefore, not the "subversion" of an existing male tradition—but rather the assertion of a concept of female sexuality and female textuality that renders male sexuality and the poetic discourse around male sexuality irrelevant. In privileging the clitoris over the vagina, Dickinson privileged the female sexual organ whose pleasure was clearly independent of the male. She also privileged the sole organ in either sex whose only function is pleasure. For Dickinson, her "crumb" was "small" but it was also "plenty." It was "enough."


This essay deals with issues which troubled me during the writing of Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. In the book, I argue the case for Dickinson's homoeroticism (and autoeroticism) much more fully. Here I wish to look at what feminist-heterosexual critics have—or, rather, have not—made of this material—and why.

1 All subsequent citations to Dickinson's poems will appear parenthetically in the text as the # symbol, followed by the Johnson number of the poem. In quoting from Dickinson's poetry and letters, I have retained her idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation.

2 Diehl's original essay has been republished in her Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination (13-33).

3 Analyses of "The Daisy follows soft the Sun" may be found in Gilbert and Gubar (600-601), Homans (203-4), and the essays by Gilbert, Keller, Mossberg, Morris, Homans, and Miller published in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, edited by Suzanne Juhasz.

4 The knowledge which Meigs states so definitively was "lost" in the course of the nineteenth century as part of a general (politically motivated) redefining of female sexuality. See Laqueur (1-41).

5 Naomi Schor is the only critic with whom I am familiar who has treated the subject of clitoral imagery and she discusses it only in relation to the use of synecdoche (detail) in male writing ("Female Paranoia" 204-19). In her full-length study of detail in male writing (Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine), she drops the idea altogether.

The locus classicus for a discussion of uterine imagery in women's "art" is Erik Erikson's influential essay "Womanhood and the Inner Space" (Erikson 261-94). In Through the Flower, Judy Chicago discusses her development of vaginal imagery and the empowering effect working with this imagery had on her (especially 51-58).

6 Dickinson identifies two kinds of sexual pleasure in this poem: one that gives the flowers joy and one that dries up or freezes them ("arid," "Frost"). If my reading is correct, this latter "pleasure" is the product of male sexuality which Dickinson depicts in some poems as a "sun," and in others as "frost." See for example, "A Visitor in Marl" (#391), and "The Frost of Death was on the Pane" (#1136). In either case, of course, male sexuality's ultimate effect on the women-flowers is the same: death.

7 I am indebted to Ms. Deborah Pfeiffer for calling my attention to this anagram.

8 I have discussed the biographical elements of this poem in My Life a Loaded Gun (52-53).

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson. London: Harvester, 1990.

——. My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. 1975. Garden City, N.Y.: AnchorDoubleday, 1982.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.

——. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1958.

Diehl, Joanne Feit. Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981.

——. "Reply to Faderman and Bernikow." Signs 4 (1978): 196.

Erikson, Erik. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Faderman, Lillian. "Emily Dickinson's Homoerotic Poetry." Higginson Journal 18 (1978): 19-27.

——. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979.

Hitchcock, Edward, ed., The Power of Christian Benevolence Illustrated in the Life and Labors of Mary Lyon. Northampton, Mass.: Hopkins, Bridgman, 1852.

Homans, Margaret. '"Syllables of Velvet': Dickinson, Rossetti, and the Rhetoric of Sexuality." Feminist Studies II (1985): 569-93.

——. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1983.

Laqueur, Thomas. "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology." In The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988. 1-41.

Meigs, Charles D. Woman: Her Diseases and Remedies. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1851.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. 1976. Rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.

Ostriker, Alicia Suskind. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Schor, Naomi. "Female Paranoia: The Case for Psychoanalytical Criticism." Yale French Studies 62 (1981):204-19.

——. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Showalter, Elaine. "Toward a Feminist Poetics." In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon 1985. 125-43.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Judith Banzer Farr (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: '"Compound Manner': Emily Dickinson and the Metaphysical Poets," in On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature, edited by Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 52-68.

[In the following essay, Farr traces the influence of seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, on Dickinson's verse.]

The habit of Emily Dickinson's mind led her, like George Herbert, to construct a "Double Estate" in which this world was "furnished with the Infinite," in which God was her "Old Neighbor," and death, agony, and grace were fleshly companions. The discipline that wrought many of her poems was the metaphysical one of a "Compound Vision" by which the eternal is argued from the transient, the foreign explained by the familiar, and fact illumined by mystery. She could speak of "Infinite March," of Calvary as another Amherst, of the "Diagram—of Rapture" because she practiced the metaphysical awareness of the unity of experience. Reared in the sternly religious society of the Connecticut Valley and in the rigorous atmosphere of the Dickinson household, she learned early to meditate upon essentials: mortality, the temporal presence of God, man's relationship with God and with creation. The acute sensibility that prompted the remark of the girl of twenty-one: "I think of the grave very often" shaped the witty double consciousness of the mature poet who saw, like Vaughan, "through all this fleshly dress/Bright shootes of everlastingnesse." Sharing the prime concerns of the seventeenth century, Emily Dickinson felt also its passionate interest in the microcosm of the self whose "polar privacy" was peopled with thoughts and emotions which supplied the data of existence and the stuff of art. Since that self was poised between scepticism and faith, desire and renunciation, optimism and despair, the artist, like Donne, sought release in a poetry of paradox, argument, and unifying conceits: "Much Madness is divinest Sense—"; "I cannot live with You—/It would be Life—"; "[A Pine is] Just a Sea—with a Stem." The Dickinson poems are the record of an imagination which kept "fundamental" both in substance and technique, recreating experience as it conceived it in terms of multiple connections and infinite semblances, often conveying its highly personal and analytic vision in the arresting manner of the metaphysical.

In comparing the matter and style of Emily Dickinson's verse with that of Donne or Herbert, one finds parallels which do not seem accidental. They suggest that her perspective was tempered and her craft confirmed from contact with the tradition of seventeenth-century poetry in England.

Almost certainly, Emily's reading was the cause of contact. She had easy access to metaphysical poetry in books owned by herself or her family and in periodicals which quoted or discussed it at length. What seem to be her pencil-markings of several poems argue close attention to their vision and technique. Emily Dickinson's poetry, however, creates a related idiom which is the crucial argument for her knowledge of Donne or Herbert; and this argument should be sifted first.


It is not difficult to find similarities between the insights and techniques of John Donne and Emily. Like her, he relished the divided joys of earth and spirit. Like hers, his poetry attempts, with frequent success, to fuse them. She refrained from professing Christ because it was "hard for [her] to give up the world"; he hesitated to take Holy Orders because he delighted in the pleasures of the questioning intellect and of the senses. Both enjoyed their disbelief for the aesthetic stimulus it supplied. Donne advised "doubt wisely"; Emily never relinquished her "old Codicil of Doubt." Yet each addressed God familiarly with petulance, awe, and passion as a divine lover. His orthodoxy hard-won, a middle-aged Donne demanded of God both intellectual rest and emotional satisfaction:

Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe, Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I Except you' enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Emily's faith was heterodox, her attitude towards God highly ambivalent. He was the central Idea to question, to attack or embrace in verse. Yet at the same age and with the same thirst for definition, she begged to be "Immured in Heaven," to be "ravished" by Love's "Bondage," insisting that Deity "Tie the strings to [her] life" and show her Himself. This quest for God, for permanence, was the generative impulse of visions alike evolved by the "columnar self" as it scrutinized values which transcended change. The reality of spirit and the chemistry of physical dissolution, the ecstasy of love and the pain of betrayal, the beauty of the mysterious, and the glamour of hard fact became, for Donne and Emily, firm truths in a world of motion and coexisted "in Being's center." Highly conscious of the supreme activity of the soul, both believed that "the body in his booke"; that

The Music in the Violin Does not emerge alone But Arm in Arm with Touch, yet Touch Alone—is not a Tune— The Spirit lurks within the Flesh Like Tides within the Sea That make the Water live, estranged What would the Either be?

Therefore, they explained their sense of the communion of mystic with material in language drawn from both worlds. Donne compared love's increase with "new taxes" or spoke of Change as "the nursery/Of music," while Emily wrote of "the Grave's Repeal" and pronounced Doom "the House without the Door—." This locative language worked within poems of a subtle, all-encompassing framework; poems like mental theaters in which the scene, a garden or bedroom, a tomb or Gethsemane, was presented vividly and in which an aspect of the poet was chief actor, inviting us to transcend the limits of our experience and imagine "The Habit of a Foreign Sky" or the way in which Christ, a young woman, or the poet himself died. The persuasiveness of that invitation is apparent in dynamic first lines like "I'll tell thee now (deare Love) what thou shalt doe" or "I'll tell you how the Sun rose—." They are lines which convey a brilliant colloquial voice inflecting many moods, asserting the self that is its subject. This keen personal consciousness which analyzed its every awareness and most sharply, its sense of God, love, and death chose similar expression in the work of both poets. The most crucial techniques of Donne and Emily Dickinson are akin: the use of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words as double witnesses of one truth in one phrase; the abortion of regular metrics to assist the immediacy of the speaking voice; the development of a poem according to the thesis of its opening line or by the elaboration of a radiant conceit like that of "The Flea" or of "He put the Belt around my life"; the use of religious phraseology to express profane love as in "The Funerall" or "There came a day at summer's full"; a fondness for paradoxical arguments like the following:

Thou canst not every day give mee they heart, If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it; Love riddles are, that though thy heart depart It stayes at home, and thou with losing savest it. A Death blow is a Life blow to Some Who till they died, did not alive become— Who had they lived, had died but when They died, Vitality begun.

Donne, who required the honest, original force of words like "itchy" and "snorted" in his most elegant poems, would have understood Emily's use of the provincialism "heft" to describe the solemn tenor of church music. An extraordinary number of poems like "The Legacie" or "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" demonstrate the delight each took in probing the sensation of death in shockingly intimate accents. Both crowded their lines with verbal excitement, as if in excess of athletic apprehension: "let/Mee travel, sojourne, snatch, plot, have, forget"; "'Tis this invites, appals, endows,/Flits, glimmers, proves, dissolves." Both enjoyed a pun and the poetry of each occasionally displays the unconciliating quality of the overly ingenious metaphysical wit:

She guilded us: But you are gold, and Shee; Us she inform'd but transubstantiates you; Soft dispositions which ductile bee, Elixarlike, she makes not cleane, but new. Enchantment's Perihelion Mistaken oft has been For the Authentic orbit Of it's Anterior Sun.

Yet their central relationship is one which ordered these incidental ones: the participation in what Louis L. Martz in his study, The Poetry of Meditation (Yale University Press, 1954) has defined as the "meditative" vision. Donne, practicing its three-fold mode of divine communion and Emily, moved by her theocratic environment to the constant contemplation of Essence, shared a conviction of the oneness of being. This produced in their poetry the continual creation of an explorative and unifying self. Eccentric imagery, syntax, metrics, the denomination of her freckled person as "Empress of Calvary," her shrewd colloquies with God, a bee, or the spirit of a word, demonstrate in Emily's verse the same sense of the drama of the "I" with which his meditative exercises informed the poetry of Donne.

George Herbert's verse functions within this vision also, and with him, Emily claims a distinct relationship. Herbert asserts, like Emily, that "There's newer—nearer Crucifixion" than the Biblical one and contemplates his intimacy with his divine lover in the virile assents of the speaking voice. He, too, expresses his confidence in the unity of being by describing the transcendent in material conceits of orderliness and neat symmetry.

The Temple, like Emily's lyrics, abounds in homely images of safe enclosure. For Herbert, Heaven is a "manour," furnished with "glorious household-stuffe"; the Trinity is a "statelie cabinet"; the soul, "a poor cabinet of bone" with rooms and a latchkey; Man is a "house" whose thoughts are walls and earth is his "cupboard of food" or, as his sepulchre, "God's ebony box." Emily used enclosure images similarly to capture an exquisitely-felt tension between body and spirit. In her "Ablative Estate," the soul has cellars and caverns which it roves or tries to shatter; the mind is a planked cell and gives banquets; the brain is furnished with mighty rooms and windy chambers wherein funerals, rejoicings, and visions occur; Heaven is the "house of supposition"; the sky is an "Astral Hall," swept by housewives like Herbert's Reason. Both poets devise poems in which enclosure is violated by the "marauding Hand" of God or a keen emotion; thus, Herbert's "Confession" or Emily's "The Soul should always stand ajar": poems which reverse the conceit of the opened door as Herbert attempts to shut out "cunning" grief, and Emily to let in "accomplished" Heaven. Herbert describes his apprehension of the divine in terms of habitation: he "dwells" in prayer, in peace, in sacred music; equally, he invites God in "The Banquet," "A Parodie," and "The Glimpse" to live in his soul's "brave … palace" as in the days when he "didst lodge with Lot." Emily, too, speaks of her communion with God as that of host with Visitor:

The Soul that hath a Guest Doth seldom go abroad— Diviner Crowd at Home— Obliterate the need— And Courtesy forbid A Host's departure when Upon Himself be visiting The Emperor of Men—

Both poets compare the perfecting or sensitive development of a soul to the erection of a building: thus, "The World" or "The Props assist the House." Even as Herbert called his sacred verse his "best room," Emily described the departure of inspiration from her soul's "unfurnished Rooms," expressing her aesthetic mission by means of an architectural conceit:

I dwell in Possibility— A fairer House than Prose— More numerous of Windows— Superior—for Doors— Of Chambers as the Cedars— Impregnable of Eye— And for an Everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky— Of Visitors—the fairest— For Occupation—This— The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise—

Enclosure imagery functions here, as in Herbert's poems, to create a sense of freedom and union. Possibility, both the lively receptiveness of the poetic mind and Poetry itself, is as reliable as a house. It is fairer than the insular home of Prose because its many apertures withhold the cursory glance, admitting supreme callers and thoughts divinely positive as sun's rays. Like the house of man's soul, it is firm because it lacks limits.

The reflective practices which put Herbert forever in the divine presence and Emily's habit of strolling with Eternity prompted the signal similar movement in the work of both poets: one by which, ardently or childishly, they asked God's lasting interview, requiring him to yield their vision fullness:

Come, Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick, While Thou dost ever, ever stay; Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick, My spirit gaspeth night and day. O, show Thyself to me, Or take me up to Thee! At least—to pray—is left—is left— Oh Jesus—in the Air— I know not which thy chamber is— I'm knocking—everywhere— Thou settest Earthquake in the South— And Maelstrom in the Sea— Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth— Hast thou no Arm for Me?

The tradition that lives in Herbert's Sidneyesque, in Emily's urgent, tones is that which disposed their use of empiric conceit, their description of Shame as a wine or a pink shawl, their building of poems around Biblical theses, their discussions with Death or Passion, their domestication of mystery and soberly playful references to the "handkerchief" of Christ's "grave clothes" or to the "fashions—of the Cross—." It is the custom of seeing "Comparatively," of fitting all experience, sublime or ordinary, into one plane and finding it the haunted "Ground Floor" of a familiar Infinite. Emily Dickinson's exotic symbols: Cashmere, Domingo, Vera Cruz, "fairer—for the farness—/ And for the foreignhood," merged in her awareness with the homely beauty of the Pelham hills to make a mental Eden round which Eternity swept "like a Sea." While Herbert praised Sunday as a

day most calm, most bright, The fruit of this, the next world's bud, Th' indorsement of supreme delight, Writ by a friend; and with His bloud

she could rhapsodize the "General Rose" which those beneath her window augured and speak of a June when all corn will be cut, for which "Our Lord—thought no/Extravagance/To pay—a Cross—." Like Herbert, she found it an "Estate perpetual" to "entertain" her own sensations, discovering that Grief, like his Affliction, had "size"; like him, she used techniques which emphasized a personal and cohesive vision: forthright syntax and economical metaphor; litany-like exclamation and meters derived from hymns; the binding melody of the tercet and, in poems like "Publication—is the Auction/Of the Mind of Man," the framework of thesis, deliberation, directive that shapes his lyrics.

Emily's kinship with the metaphysical poets is remarkable. One suspects that it developed not simply through a creativity led by instinct and by Puritan and Transcendental forces to elect a meditative mode, but from a familiarity with that mode in the work of Donne, Marvell, and the rest. Her letters and poems provide slim support for this conclusion. She writes once of Vaughan to T. W. Higginson in 1880, spelling his name "Vaughn" and misquoting his line "My days, which are best but dull and hoary" as "My Days that are at best but dim and hoary." Emily spelled casually, as did her associates: a certain engaging cotton farmer was spoken of on three occasions in the 1863 Springfield Republican as Mr. "Vaughan," "Vaughn," and "Vaughne." Her substitution of "dim" for "dull" was perhaps due to a recollection of "glimmering" in the poem's next line. Her mistake argues an acquaintance with "They are all gone into the world of light!" But this is her sole allusion to Vaughan, although the following poem, with its interesting implication in the word "enables," suggests that, by 1863,1 she knew his verse, as she did Thomas Browne's prose, intimately:

Strong draughts of Their Refreshing Minds To drink—enables Mine Through Desert or the Wilderness As bore it Sealed Wine To go elastic—Or as One The Camel's trait—attained How powerful the Stimulus Of an Hermetic Mind

That she tasted Herbert's "Sealed Wine" is deduced from her transcription of the middle stanzas of "Mattens."2 Her poem "I've heard an Organ talk sometimes" suggests that she knew the basic meditative tradition as it appeared in the devotional mysticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Describing her wordless rapture at hearing church music, she says that she had "risen up," afterwards, and "gone away/ A more Bernardine Girl—." She makes no reference to Donne; none to Marvell, whose equations of the soul with a garden resemble hers; none to Crashaw, Cowley, or King, some of whose insights and conceits are like her own.


It is highly likely, however, that Emily read metaphysical verse in her favorite newspapers and magazines and in books which she owned or borrowed. She would have done so because this poetry was available; because she read omnivorously; because critics, poets, and friends she admired praised it.

Samuel Bowles was a friend of the Dickinsons and a frequent correspondent of Emily's. His newspaper, the Springfield Republican, evinced the active spirit and wide tastes of its editor, becoming "a sovereign authority in Amherst" and "next in importance to the Bible in determining the mental climate of Emily Dickinson's formative years."3 Emily's letters indicated its importance to her not only as a link with the busy world of politics and friends' lives but as a literary guide. In the "vital times" when Bowles "bore the Republican," aided by his associate editor, Emily's friend Dr. Holland, the paper reviewed reissued classics like Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Dying or rebuked new volumes like Dramatis Personae. It carried critical articles by Frank B. Sanborn, Emerson's biographer, which ranged from scathing accounts of the recent numbers of the Atlantic Monthly and estimations of the poems of Whitman and Joaquin Miller to affectionate praise of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, Marlowe's plays, and Drayton's sonnets. Alongside lines from Beppo, advertising Hostetter's Stomach Bitters, were printed selections from Francis Bacon and Paradise Lost. On May 20, 1863, an extract from the Providence Journal anticipated Emily's decision that "Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles—/Bucaneers of Buzz": "A bee buzzed in at our window yesterday. He was dressed like a colonel of cavalry, in a dark suit, with yellow trimmings." The metaphysical school was not neglected. Marvell's "Bermudas"' and Herbert's "Money" were reprinted at least three and four times respectively between 1858 and 1863, while "Dr. Donne's Holy Sonnets and the devotional poems of "holy Herbert" were applauded for their intent and reproved for "fantastic conceits" in 1863. In the same year, the following article appeared. It was probably written by Sanborn, who was then supplying critical articles to the Boston Transcript and Traveller as well as to the Republican and with whom Emily had corresponded in 1871, thanking him for literary advice. The article compliments Vaughan for the very economy that Bowles demanded of his reporters and that Higginson had required of his "Young Contributor."

(The Springfield Daily Republican, February 14, 1863)


Henry Vaughan and His Poems

We notice, in one of our exchanges, a poem entitled 'Dew and Frost,' credited to George Herbert. It is not, however, his, but was written by Henry Vaughan, and with additional verses forms the poem called in the collection of that author's works, 'LOVE AND DISCIPLINE.' It is sweet and suggestive; we give it entire, below. The mistake which attributed it to Herbert, had it occurred during the life time and within the notice of Vaughan, would have afforded him the greatest pleasure, as indicating a similarity between his own compositions and those of one whom he delighted to call his master. A few specimens of Vaughan's poetry may not be uninteresting to those of our readers who are not familiar with it. Amid the quaint conceits and profuse imagery which characterize his poetry, (though in a less degree than that of most authors of his age,) there sparkles the true radiance of genius. Here and there you find thoughts simply, strongly, tenderly expressed; a volume in a line; a nineteenth century essay in three words. And over all shines the hallowing lustre of a truly Christian spirit. As he himself says: "He that desires to excel in this kind of hagiography, or holy writing, must strive by all means for perfection and true holiness; that a door may be opened to him in heaven, and then he will be able to write with Hierotheus and holy Herbert, 'a true hymn.'"

Henry Vaughan was born A.D. 1621, and died A.D. 1695. The selections which follow are taken from a volume entitled 'SILEX SCINTILLA[N]S,' and published in London in 1655.

The article then quotes "Love and Discipline" and "The Evening-watch" in their entirety. They are followed by this comment on "Rules and Lessons" and an extract central to Emily Dickinson's creed:

'RULES AND LESSONS' is one of Vaughan's most characteristic poems. Though less pleasing in diction than some others, it is full of just and beautiful thought. We have space but for one verse:—

Seek not the same steps with the crowd; stick thou To thy sure trot; a constant, humble mind Is both his own joy and his Maker's too; Let folly dust it on, or lag behind,—A sweet self—privacy in a right soul Outruns the earth, and lines the utmost pole.

The first six stanzas of "Cock-crowing" are quoted as exemplary of "Vaughan's sympathy with nature." The article then concludes with lines 25 to 50 of "The Seed growing secretly."

Emily Dickinson, who told the Hollands in a letter of autumn, 1853, that she "read in [the Springfield Republican] every night," probably saw this article. She might have been impressed with Vaughan's use of "Essential Oils" and she would have liked his lines "A sweet self-privacy in a right soul/Outruns the earth, and lines the utmost pole"; for she herself, in 1863, had commended the "solitary prowess/Of a Silent Life—" and written:

Suffice Us—for a Crowd— Ourself—and Rectitude— And that Assembly—not far off From furthest Spirit—God—

It was the kernel of her life and art.

That frequent criticisms of metaphysical verse appeared in the Republican during Emily's most creative years is important. That they appeared under Bowles's aegis is also significant. He, like Emerson—himself a lover of Donne and Herbert—, was an occasional caller at Austin's villa, bringing books for Susan Dickinson and her "Sister" across the lawn. One of these was Charles A. Dana's Household Book of Poetry, published in 1860, and reviewed in 1864 by the Republican. In 1950, the book was presented to Harvard University by Gilbert Montague and is now preserved in Harvard's Houghton Library. A letter from Bowles, still in it, suggests that the volume was given to the Dickinsons shortly after its arrival in 1862 at the Boston publishers, Ticknor & Fields. The book contained a small selection of metaphysical verse. There were Marvell's "On A drop of Dew," "The Mower to the Glow-Worms," the "Horatian Ode," and "Bermudas." Herbert was represented by "The Call," "Complaining," "The Flower," and "Virtue." Of Vaughan, there were "Peace," "The Bee," "The Feast," the famous "They are all gone into the world of light!," and the important meditative poem, "Rules and Lessons." Crashaw's "On a Prayer Book Sent to Mrs. M. R," his Italianate song "To thy Lover," and "Temperance: or the Cheap Physician" were included with scores of Herrick's lyrics including his "Litany to the Holy Spirit" and many of Carew's less "metaphysical" pieces. Emily, who was, as her letter demonstrates, a constant borrower of Sue's books, could have read these poems; but they would have been slender diet. Bowles's letter to Sue, however, had called the book the "complement to your collection of poets"; for the Dickinson libraries, both Austin's and Emily's, were replete with anthologies and volumes of verse.

One of the most interesting of these for our purposes is The Sacred Poets of England and America, edited by Rufus Griswold and published by D. Appleton & Co. in 1849. Like other books I shall discuss, it, too, was presented to Harvard in 1950 on the premise that it had been in the Dickinson family during Emily's lifetime. This last seems certain: it is inscribed to Susan by members of the Utica Female Academy, "Dec. 22, 1848." It contains a generous selection of metaphysical poetry. Donne is represented by Holy Sonnets I, VI, VII, and X, and by his hymns "To Christ at the Authors last going into Germany" and "To God, my God, in my sicknesse." Herbert's "The Collar," "The Quip," "Virtue," "Business," "Peace," and "Grace" appear, followed by Vaughan's "The Pursuite," "The World," "The Bee," "The Shepherds," "The Garland," "The Dwelling-place," "The Wreath," "Son-dayes," "The Retreate," "Childe-hood," "Peace," "Looking back," and "They are all gone into the world of light!" Marvell's "On a Drop of Dew" and "Bermudas" are printed, together with Crashaw's "The Martyr," "Dies Irae Dies Ilia," and the "Full Chorus" from "In the Holy Nativity." There were Cowley's "The Garden" and "The Ecstasy" besides eight poems by William Drummond; several, including "The Anniversary" and "The Dirge," by Bishop King; many from Herrick's Noble Numbers and from Quarles's Emblems and several poems by Baxter and Habington. It is unthinkable that Emily, who was with difficulty kept from reading even Motherwell, overlooked this volume. Vaughan's poems are those which best convey the mystic insight she shared and the lines like "Eternity/In time" which she approximates. Donne's poems and sonnets, with the grand "death, thou shalt die," resemble many of hers in technique and in her affirmations that "Death [is] dead." Marvell's "On a Drop of Dew," with its delicate meditative structure, and Crashaw's "Full Chorus" would have appealed to her in substance and style, as would Cowley's "The Garden" or Herbert's "The Collar," which, like his "Love," her own poem "'Unto me'? I do not know you" closely resembles.

But Emily did not require this volume to read Herbert. Her sister-in-law owned an 1857 edition of The Temple. Whether it was Susan's or Emily's is a nice question. The autograph signature on the flyleaf is "S. H. Dickinson." This suggests that it was signed by Sue shortly after her marriage in 1856, since her signature in the period of the seventies was "Mrs. Wm. A. Dickinson." In the latter fifties and early sixties, when she and Emily were reading Aurora Leigh and Sordello, her autograph on the flyleaves of those and other books bore the middle initial she had used as Susan Huntington Gilbert. Edward Dickinson, whose reading was "lonely and rigorous," may not have bought a Herbert for Emily; but, like Sue's Coventry Patmore, commended by Bowles, it doubtless crossed the lawn, remaining there, with Sue's copies of Theodore Parker's Prayers and Carlyle's essays, for the principal use of her sister-in-law. The Houghton Library catalogue describes the volume as "bearing pencil marks—probably by Emily." The conjecture is valid; for the markings in The Temple, as in other books I shall discuss, follow a pattern. This pattern is accompanied in other volumes by critical comments in what seems Emily's hand of the early sixties.4 The major indication that the markings are Emily's is, in every case, what is marked or the nature of the comment. The hand that scored The Temple used the same light, single stroke to the right of the page as the one that scored the following passage in De Quincey's Essays on the Poets: "the literature of power builds nests in aerial altitudes of temples sacred from violation, or of forests inaccessible to fraud." Alongside the passage, in Emily's hand, is the note "View Mrs. Browning's Essays on the Greek Poets" Throughout the Dickinson books are such markings, surmised to be Emily's, which are applied to passages that recall her poems. Thus, line 861 in "The Book and the Ring," "Art may tell a truth/Obliquely," resembles the notion conveyed in "Tell all the truth but tell it slant—"; while a line marked in Emerson's Compensation, "There is a deeper fact in the soul than compensation, to wit, its own nature," expresses Emily's belief in the value of the independent spirit. Whoever made these markings knew the mind of the poet as well as she herself. That they were made by Susan is unlikely: as Vinnie Dickinson said, "to think" was Emily's job; Susan was a busy hostess to Austin's many friends; and those few of her books which she marked—Palgrave's Treasury (1877) for example—are underlined or crossed in ink: a different system entirely. The marked passages in Herbert's Temple voice concepts crucial to Emily's creed. The following lines from "The Church-Porch," "A verse may finde him who a sermon flies,/ And turn delight into a sacrifice," assert Emily's conviction that a poet was the "Merchant—of the Heavenly Grace" whose creative activities were his form of worship; while others, like "Dare to look in thy chest; for 'tis thine own;/ And tumble up and down what thou find'st there" declare the principle of self-analysis that supports all Emily's verse.

Edward Dickinson owned Robert Chambers's Cyclopedia of English Literature, in an edition published in 1847 by the Boston firm of Gould & Kendall. It contained metaphysical poems and criticisms of the poets. Sue Dickinson had an Edinburgh, 1844, edition of the same book. On its flyleaf, she records that it was purchased in 1856, before her marriage. It is possible that Emily received her volume after admiring Sue's. In Edward Dickinson's copy, the Vaughan section, like that of Crashaw, is well-thumbed and creased from right to left. It comprised "The Rainbow," "Timber," and "Rules and Lessons." The fourth stanza of the latter bears a thin line at right. The stanza alludes to Jacob wrestling with the Angel, a Biblical example of perseverance frequently cited by Emily in letters and in poems like "A little East of Jordan." The Cyclopedia also contained selections from Donne, pronounced—with some qualification—"real poetry, and … of a high order," including his "Valediction—forbidding mourning," "The Will," and "Satyre IV" from line 17b. "The Broken Heart," often compared with Emily's "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" was criticized for its use of "mere conceit." Cowley's poems included "On the Death of Mr. Crashaw," "The Wish," "The Epicure," and others, along with two poems whose imagery is similar to Emily Dickinson's. In "Upon the shortness of Man's Life," human life is compared with an arrow; in "A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!", Emily had said, "my soul: What issues/Upon thine arrow hang!" Cowley's "Description of Heaven" contains the couplet, "Nothing is there To come, and nothing Past,/ But an Eternal Now does always last"; Emily affirms "Forever is composed of Nows—/'Tis not a different Time." Crashaw, praised for his "mystical style of thought," was represented by "Wishes to a Supposed Mistress," "Music's Duel," "Temperance," and the "Hymn to the Name of Jesus," one of the finest examples of his peculiar meditative technique. Marvell's "the Nymph complaining," "The Garden," and his satire on Holland were included, together with Herbert's "Martens," "The Pulley," and other poems. There were several selections from Wither, Davies, and Southwell.

The Dickinsons also owned a volume called Hymns of the Ages, subtitled "Selections from Wither, Crashaw, Southwell, Habington, and other Sources," published in Boston by Ticknor & Fields in 1861 and favorably reviewed by the Republican on December 7, 1864. As the book truthfully claimed, it contained "large selections" of the "tender and earnest numbers of Southwell and Crashaw and Habington, the gentle symphonies of Vaughan, the rugged verse of Donne … and the voluminous "Halleujah" of Wither, which touched with a poetic glow each object of daily life." The volume is neither autographed nor marked and carries no acquisition date. Emily Dickinson rarely autographed her own books: Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy is one of the few which bear her own signature. Others, like The Imitation of Christ were marked "Emily Dickinson" by Sue or the giver. That this book is not autographed, unlike each of Sue's volumes, suggests that it may have been the poet's.

Selections and criticisms of metaphysical verse were available to Emily in magazines; in the Amherst College Library, of which Austin was trustee; in friends' libraries. She subscribed to the Atlantic Monthly and probably saw reviews of George Duyckinck's Life of Herbert in the June, 1859, issue and articles like E. P. Whipple's on John Donne and the "Minor Elizabethan Poets" in the July, 1868, issue. Copies of each issue are preserved with the Dickinson books. That Emily borrowed volumes from the college shelves is indicated by a letter, written in 1858, to the wife of Joseph Haven, professor of metaphysics at Amherst: "Have you … in [your] Library, either Klosterheim or the Confessions of an Opium Eater by De Quincey? I have sent to Northampton, but cannot get them there; and they are missing just now from the College Library." Unfortunately, the present Converse Library of Amherst College lacks check-out lists from Emily's time. But, through Austin, who was purchasing the library's books in the early sixties, she could have borrowed copies of The British Poets series of the works of Donne, Crashaw, and Davies, published in 1855 by Little, Brown & Co. and popularized by the Republican.

Emily's favorite authors praised and quoted metaphysical verse. This alone would have piqued the Dickinson curiosity. Higginson commended the "vital vigor" of Andrew Marvell's poems to his "Young Contributor." Emerson, in "The Oversoul," employed Emily's Dionysian conception of art to distinguish between the poetry of "accomplished talkers" like Pope and that of a "fervent mystic" like Herbert, "prophesying half insane under the infinitude of his thought." Browning invoked the "revered and magisterial Donne" in "The Two Poets of Croisic," and George Eliot quoted three stanzas of "The undertaking" and one of "The good-morrow" in Chapters xxxIx and LXXXIII of Middlemarch.

Emily Dickinson's control of her inmost thoughts in lean, colloquial, incandescent verse; her conviction that "Drama's Vitallest Expression is the Common Day" with its rare vibrations; her simultaneous analysis of earth and eternity compose the "Compound Manner" that commits her to the metaphysical tradition. From the poets of this tradition she doubtless sought imaginative stimulus and an occasional technical lesson. Her genius and her poetry are unique, but her inner vision and unifying style link her with Donne, Marvell, Vaughan, and Herbert, poets who argued the community of all "that which God doth touch and own."


1 If we accept Thomas H. Johnson's dating in his Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), II, 545.

I am grateful to Charles R. Green of the Jones Library, Amherst, for advice and for access to Dickinson material; to William A. Jackson of the Houghton Library, Harvard, for permission to use Harvard's Dickinson collection; and to Mrs. Alfred Leete Hampson for allowing me to see Dickinson books still at Evergreens.

2 See Bolts of Melody, ed. Millicent Todd Bingham, with Mabel Loomis Todd (New York, 1945), p. 125.

3 Van Wyck Brooks, New England: Indian Summer (New York, 1940), p. 317; George F. Whicher, This Was a Poet (New York, 1938), p. 170.

4 This conclusion was reached after a comparison of the comments with specimens of Emily's writing given by Theodora Ward in the introductory chapter to Johnson's Poems. It is, of course, a layman's attempt to identify the writing chronologically.

Paula Hendrickson (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2915

SOURCE: "Dickinson and the Process of Death," in Dickinson Studies, Vol. 77, 1st Half, 1991, pp. 33-43.

[In the following essay, Hendrickson studies the poems of Dickinson which refer to the precise moment of death, stating that these poems are often grouped as a subcategory of Dickinson's death poems and are rarely studied individually. Hendrickson analyzes in particular the imagery and themes specific to these poems.]

While many books and articles have been written on the topic of Emily Dickinson's death poems, virtually nothing has been published about her moment of death poems. On rare occasions, scholars have mentioned the moment of death poems as a sub-catagory of her death poems. In researching this paper, I found nothing which dealt with this topic any further. This is unfortunate, because the most fascinating of ED [Emily Dickinson]'s death poems involve the description of the very moment of death. Some of these poems are seen thru the eyes of a bystander, and some are seen thru the eyes of the person who is dying. It has been documented by Dickinson in her own letters that she held a certain fascination about the process of dying. She had even been known to write letters to the bereaved, asking for the details of the deceased's final moments. Characteristically, this near-obsession with the process of dying found its way into her poetry. Perhaps the clearest example of her morbid curiosity is "To know just how He suffered—would be dear" (622). This poem is virtually a series of questions asking about a man's death. The speaker asks if the man's eyes sought out a particular person; if he had any last words; if he was patient; if dying was as he imagined it would be; if he was thinking about any singular thing; if he had any last wishes; if he was frightened; if he was conscious; and if it was "a pleasant day to die." These questions, and others, are addressed in Dickinson's process of death poems. This particular genre of poems has many references to vision, and to the eyes. Many of these poems also discuss the anesthetic power of death, with sleep acting as a metaphor for death. There are many other elements which emerge from the topic of dying, including the enigma of dying, and the bodily reactions to death (thirist, loss of senses, coldness). On the whole, all of these concerns help to portray death as an easy process, much like sleep, in which the victim gradually grows weak and weary.

One of her definitions of death is found in "I like a look of Agony" (241). Here it says that "The eyes glaze once—and that is Death." Eyes do play an important role in the moment of death poems. In the majority of these poems, the speaker, usually a bystander, reflects upon the actual appearance of the dying person's eyes. In "She bore it till the simple veins/ Traced azure on her hand" (144), the dying woman's eyes are described as "quiet," "pleading," surrounding by "purple Crayons." These latter could either refer to dark circles under the eyes, or to bloodshot eyes. In either case, the reader's attention is firmly fixed upon those dying, pleading eyes. The dying person's eyes in "'Twas warm—at first—like Us" (519) are called "busy." Following the thought of similar Dickinsonian poems, these eyes are busy seeking out some unknown object—God, Death, or perhaps an escort to the afterlife—an object which could be termed an enigma of death. These "busy eyes" are said to have congealed with the coldness of death. "A Dying Tiger moaned for Drink" (566) describes the dead tiger's eyes as having "A Vision on the Retina/Of Water—and of me." In "To know just how He suffered—Would be dear" (622), the speaker wonders what the dying man, presumably Christ, last saw before viewing Paradise. The poem "He scanned it—staggered—/ Dropped the Loop" (1962) says the suicidal man felt "as if/His Mind were going blind" only moments before killing himself. His motive, or at least one of his motives, for suicide is the belief that his soul has died (his mind is blind) and his body must follow suit. The actions of a dying person's eyes are most vividly described in "I've seen a Dying Eye" (547). This brief poem tells of the final movements of the eyes as they seem to search for, and locate, that elusive, enigmatic object of death.

"I've seen a Dying Eye" (547) also deals with the gradual obscurement of a dying person's vision. Words such as "Cloudier" and "Fog" help to emphasize the encroaching blindness of impending death. After being clouded with fog, the eyes seal shut in death. Not fog, but a fly obscures the dying person's vision in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died" (465). Here the fly can be construed as Death itself, for only seconds before the speaker dies, the fly "interposes" itself "Between the light' and me." In obscuring the dying person's vision, the fly's actions become the catalyst of the actual moment of death, when, "I could not see to see." "The Sun kept setting—setting—still" (692) combines the use of light and dark imagery with the fading eyesight of the dying person. The speaker believes it is dusk, when in reality it is noon. In the lines "It's only fainter—by degrees—/And then it's out of sight," from "To die—takes just a little while" (255), the theme of fading, or a gradual obscurement of vision is used to compare death to falling asleep. Death and sleep are both … gradual processes resulting in total oblivion.

The anesthetic power of death can be found in many of Dickinson's death poems. "To die—takes just a little while—/They say it doesn't hurt" (255) clearly refers to the anesthetic power of death by stating that dying is painless, as if the person's body has grown numb. The closing two lines of this poem say that death was as if he "Had gone to sleep—that soundest time—? Without the weariness." "The Heart asks Pleasure—first" (536) is more explicit in comparing death to sleep. This poem mentions a pain-killing drug, Anodyne, deadening the pain of dying while causing the sufferer to fall asleep in death. Another poem, "I've dropped my Brain—My Soul is numb" (1046), describes a paralyzed woman as being a "Breathing Woman" trapped inside of a dead, lifeless body. The coldness, numbness, and paralysis mentioned in the first stanza strengthen the anesthetic references. "'Twas Warm—at first—like Us" (519) also contains the theme of the anesthetic power of death. In the first stanza, the word "Chill" reminds the reader of the chilling numbness associated with anesthetics and painkillers such as Novacaine. Again, the coldness and numbness are brought up in the lines "The Fingers grew too cold/To ache." A handful of other moment of death poems use words such as "drowsing" and "drowsiest" to suggest the sleep-inducing qualities of death.

Dickinson's moment of death poems question, but seldom answer, the enigma of what lies ahead after death. However, some of her death poems (in particular, "One dignity delays for all" (98), "Death is the supple Suitor" (1445), and "Because I could not stop for Death" (712) suggest an after-life to which one is escorted by attendants or coachmen. By acknowledging this frequently recurring theme, the reader can assume that the fly in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died" (465) is either an escort or Death itself. It then can also be supposed that the dying eye in "I've seen a Dying Eye" (547) is searching for God or an escort to Paradise, visible only to the dying person. A more difficult puzzle is what "the Light" mentioned towards the end of "The Sun kept setting—setting—still" (692) represents. The first two lines of the final stanza can be read as if the dying person can see "the light at the end of the tunnel," so to speak. Here it is also revealed that the speaker knows she is dying and is not afraid. So, it is also possible that here "Light" actually means death. Death need not be portrayed with dark imagery because the speaker has no fear of death. In creating such enigmas, she allows her readers to arrive at their own, independent conclusions.

The number of times sight is mentioned in Dickinson's moment of death poems far out-numbers the number of times all other senses together are brought up. The only one of the five senses not addressed in her moment of death poems is the sense of smell. In most cases, the dying person experiences a gradual loss of feeling. The best example of the diminishing sense of feeling is seen in "'Twas warm—at first—like Us" (519) as the victim grows cold and numb. Rarely mentioned in her moment of death poems is the sense of sound. "The Sun kept setting—setting—still" (692) raises the question, "Yet why so little sound—Myself/Unto my Seeming make?" These lines suggest that along with fading vision and physical numbness, the dying person also suffers a hearing loss. The senses of taste and touch are addressed in "The World—feels Dusty/When We stop to Die" (715). The opening stanza contains the lines, "We want the Dew—then—/Honors—taste dry." Here the dying person is so thirsty, so parched, for water and for salvation that the events and honors of his life seem meaningless in comparison. The final stanza completes the thought by referring to death as "Thirst." The speaker essentially says that when her loved one is dying, it will be her job to quench his thirst with "Hybla Balms," and "Dews of Thessaly." In death, even animals grow thirsty, as in "A Dying Tyger—moaned for Drink" (566). Of course, this thirst is very obvious in the "The Dying need but little, Dear, / A Glass of Water's all" (1026).

In Dickinson's poems, death is not a swift occurrence, but a gradual process. In "She bore it till the simple veins / Traced azure on her hand" (144), Dickinson portrays the complexity of death by connecting various stages of death with the phrase "and then." In this poem, this phrase is used in the lines, "And then she ceased to bear., it—/And with the Saints sat down." While, the title may be slightly misleading, "To die—takes just a little while" (255) describes death as a gradual process. Again, using the phrase "and then," this poem sums up the process of death in two lines, "It's only fainter—by degrees—/And then—it's out of sight." "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died" (465) uses "and then" three times, each time introducing a new stage of death. First, the fly blocks the speaker's vision, next, "the Windows failed," and lastly, "I could not see to see." This same process is detailed in "I've seen a Dying Eye" (547) as the eyes seek out an unknown object, then are obscured by fog, then are soldered shut. Here the phrase "and then" is used twice. Without the use of "and then," the poem "'Twas warm at first—like us" (519) follows the process of death from a growing chill to the final breath of life. The different stages of dying are arranged into four separate stanzas in "The Sun kept setting—setting—still" (692). At first, the speaker is slightly confused, feeling as if it is dusk, yet knowing it is noon. The sensations endured by the speaker eventually convince her that she is indeed dying. The most times "and then" is used in a single moment of death poem is four. This occurs in "The Heart asks Pleasure—first" (536), a poem of just eight lines. Here the dying person drifts into sleep, and from sleep, falls into death. With or without the phrase "and then," these poems manage to convey the idea that death is a gradual, natural, process.

In writing her moment of death poems, ED may have drawn her images from hearsay about the final stages of death. More likely, tho, she gathered her ideas thru more systematic means. She was apparently not timid about inquiring as to the particulars of a person's death. She avidly pursued questioning anyone she knew who had witnessed a death. Her letters reflect her interest in even the smallest details of death. ED would not be pleased with a reply that the deceased died quietly. She would desire to know if he moved, blinked, spoke, or smiled. She seemed to be searching for even the faintest clue to the enigma of death. Her curiosity about the afterlife is evident even in letters written when she was quite young.

Dickinson's earliest surviving letter probing for information about a friend's death was written in early 1854, when she was just 23. She wrote to Reverend Edward Everett Hale asking about the death of her friend Benjamin F. Newton, "I often have hoped to know if his last hours were cheerful, and if he was willing to die…. You may think my desire strange, Sir, but the Dead was dear to me, and I would love to know that he sleeps peacefully" (Johnson 1:282). In another example, from 1862, she asked her cousin, Louise Norcross, to tell her how Louise's aunt Myra died. She wrote, "You must tell us all you know about dear Myra's going…. Was Myra willing to leave us all? I want so much to know if it was hard, husband and babies and big life and sweet home by the sea. I should think she would rather have stayed …" (2:406-7).

1881 marked a point when ED's letters about death became more frequent. In October of that year, Dr. Holland, the husband of one of her closest friends, died. When inquiring about Dr. Holland's death, she wrote, "I am yearning to know if he knew he was fleeing—if he spoke to you. Dare I ask if he suffered?" James Clark, a man with whom ED had occasionally corresponded, died in 1883. To his brother Charles, she wrote:

I never had met your brother but once … An unforgotten once…. I hope he was able to speak with you in his closing moment…. I am eager to know all you may tell me of those final Days. (3:778)

After the death of her treasured friend, H.H. Jackson, Dickinson wrote to the widower:

… I…. express my sympathy for my grieved friend, and to ask him [sic] when sorrow will allow, if he will tell me a very little of her life's close? She said in a note of a few months since, "I am absolutely well."

I next knew of her death. Excuse me for disturbing you in so deep an hour.

Bereavement is my only plea.

Sorrowfully, E. Dickinson. (3:885).

Dickinson also wrote to a clergyman, Forrest F. Emerson, asking about Mrs. Jackson's death. Dickinson claimed that her sister Lavinia "Vinnie" desired the information:

… Vinnie hoped, too, to speak with you of Helen of Colorado, whom she understood you to have a friend, a friend also of hers.

Should she know any circumstances of her life's close, would she perhaps lend it to you, that you might lend it to me? (3:890).

That Dickinson would go as far as asking a friend of Mrs. Jackson for details of the death suggests the increasing importance such matters held.

Just as she expected from others, Dickinson included in her own letters detailed accounts of the deaths of her loved ones. When her father died in 1874, Dickinson's letters contained no specific information as to his death, but when her mother died in 1882, her letters were very specific. She wrote to Mrs. Holland:

She seemed entirely better the last Day of her Life and took Lemonade—Beef Tea and Custard with a pretty ravenousness that delighted us. After a restless Night, complaining of great weariness, she was lifted earlier than usual from her Bed to her Chair, when a few quick breaths and a "Don't leave me, Vinnie" and her sweet being closed—That the one we have cherished so softly so long, should be in that great Eternity without our simple Counsels, seems frightened and foreign, but we hope that Our Sparrow has ceased to fall, though at first we believe nothing—(3:746).

Similar details are mentioned in letters to Mrs. Howard Smith (3:748) and Louise and Frances Norcross (3:749-50). Dickinson was deeply grieved by the death of her eight year old nephew Gilbert in 1883. She wrote about his death to Mrs. Holland:

"Open the door, open the door, they are waiting for me," was Gilbert's sweet command in delirium. Who were waiting for him, all we possess we would gladly give to know—Anguish at last opened it, and he ran to the little Grave at his grandparent's feet—(3:803)

Here Dickinson's fascination and frustration with the enigma of death are more strongly expressed than at any other time of her life. It seems that most of her thoughts about dying came to fruition in her own death. After being bed-ridden for the better part of six months, ED sank into a coma on May 13, 1886. Two days later she died at home. Dickinson's own death seems to prove that death is a gradual process much like falling asleep. She appears to have resolved the enigma of death for herself, because in what is believed to be her final letter (to Louise and Frances Norcross) she wrote:

Little Cousins, Called back. Emily. (3:906).

Source Cited

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Letters of ED. 3 vol. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1958.

Willis Buckingham (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5791

SOURCE: "Poetry Readers and Reading in the 1890's: Emily Dickinson's First Reception," in Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response, edited by James L. Machor, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993, pp. 164-79.

[In the following essay, Buckingham reviews the reception of Dickinson's poetry by readers in the 1890s, stating that they praised her inspirational thoughts and feelings more than they respected her poetic technique.]

When Emily Dickinson's Poems first appeared in 1890, her reluctant Boston publisher, Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers, wondered whether his firm could afford to underwrite even a small edition of 500 copies.1 Within three months the book had elicited well over 100 reviews, and Roberts Brothers was shipping its sixth printing. By decade's end, sales of that first volume alone had reached 10,000; two additional collections of poems and one of letters accounted for another 10,000 books sold. The 600 notices her books received are recently collected in my Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History.2 These reviews demonstrate that Dickinson's Poems occasioned an immediate and remarkable response from magazinists and journalists of the day. During that first decade of publication the Amherst poet was brought and held in prominence by a community of some 500 commentators who contributed reviews, book trade news, and literary gossip to papers and journals throughout the country. Hers was distinctly a "reviewers' book," a case of readers dictating to the book trade led by professional readers.3

Having the early reviews in hand corrects the longstanding belief that Dickinson could not find an appreciative audience until the twentieth century.4 These readers' reports also tell us how end-of-the-century reviewers formulate norms of valuation and define poet-reader relations. In so doing, they illuminate the readership to which Dickinson herself belonged. Those who write about her in the nineties are only, on average, about fifteen years her junior. Nor are the reviewers all male; forty percent of the signed reviews are by women, a percentage that probably held overall.

The focus of this study is not on ways Dickinson was first taught or studied or on how these documents reveal schools of criticism. Rather, in drawing on all known writing about the poet from the decade, it seeks what is common among poetry audiences as their fulfillment conditions for the reading of verse. The attention here is to Dickinson's first reviewers less in their roles as arbiters than as describers (and interpreters) of the social experience of poetry available to readers of their time. In their extent and diversity, these documents provide a broadly based perspective on nineties' poetry users and their shared interests and satisfactions.

More particularly, this essay highlights an often unrecognized feature of nineteenth-century literary activity: the way in which poetry reading, though taking place in solitude, joined itself to other social activities, especially communion between like-minded persons. According to the interpretive logic of these documents, poetry reading at its best creates an intimacy between the reader and the poet, a sacramentalized society of two. Verse reading also defines (and in the eyes of some reviewers, may slightly redefine) a larger community: those persons already loosely bounded as the "poetry lovers" for whom the reviewers speak. Nineties' descriptions of these dynamics between reader and writer and among readers underscore the processes by which literature enters people's lives and by which reading communities and their values are shaped with the help of texts.5

It is not as easy as it might seem, a century later, to give these voices from the nineties a well-considered hearing. Their statements have long struck modern readers as quaint critical baby-talk, threaded through with analytically useless terms like "genius" and "sympathy." As Joyce Carol Oates observes, we are more profoundly separated from the Victorians than from earlier literary communities. This disjunction, she notes, is especially acute in language: "We presumably share a common language with our [Victorian] ancestors but much of our vocabulary—such words as 'soul,' 'eternity,' 'subservience,' 'dependence'—even 'lady'—even 'sin'—is irrevocably altered."6 Opaque as "genius" and "sympathy" seem today, they encode the normative satisfactions of a historically distinct and influential group of professional poetry readers.7 By means of such terms as these, nineties commentators intend to reveal and shape the poetry desires of their generation.8

"Genius" and "sympathy" are the two most frequent and powerful words in Dickinson's first readers' vocabulary of praise. They refer to the mind and to the heart, the centers of enjoyment most often referenced in these documents. Reviewers also prominently mention aesthetic pleasure. But their admiration for technique is only as an adjunct to inspired thought and feeling. The true poet, says the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican, will use a technical device such as rhythm "as an instrument and not as an object of attainment" (178).9 The desired poetical goals remain thought and feeling, to the poetic expression of which some critics believe song and sound are indispensable. Indeed, when Dickinson is faulted, it is almost always for her technical irregularities.10 However, form for her reviewers is ancillary satisfaction, of mind and heart, rather than a sufficient pleasure in itself.

Interest in "affect" holds as true for those critics praising Dickinson's "genius" as for those commending her "sympathy." "Genius" occurs in nearly one hundred notices, often in their first paragraph. The Boston Saturday Evening Gazette writes of Dickinson's verses that they "are the outcome of the genius of an accomplished woman" (33). Phrases suggestive of originality and enthrallment accompany the appearance of this word: "witchery of genius," "rare and original genius," "so singular a genius," "the erratic and unconfinable genius," "wonderful and strange genius," "the surprises of genius," and a genius whose trait is that "startling abruptness of the seer." For one writer she has "too much genius and too little flesh and blood," and to another she is a "genius without talent," but on no characterization of the new poet is there greater accord than on this. And in Dickinson's case "genius" is not a term reviewers wait for her second or third book to validate, for the word appears with equal frequency throughout the decade. With her first slim book she skips cum and magna and goes right to summa.11

T. W. Higginson, throughout the nineties, praises Dickinson above all for her "high thoughts." Many follow his lead but not in the sense of ideas as arguable propositions or mere opinion. As Arlo Bates says, "Her theology is of a sort to puzzle metaphysicians, and yet one finds it often most suggestive and stimulating" (32). It is a "high sort of seeing" and contains elements of excitement, risk, surprise, intensity, awe, and even suggestions of the occult. For nineties reviewers, Dickinson's ideas are fresh, original, intense, condensed, oracular, and unhackneyed.12 Innumerable references to "power" appear in this context, as do indicators of strangeness and suddenness ("barbaric," "startling,") and words that combine the two in ignition imagery: the "fire" and "sparks" of genius (243, 391).

This sense of "truth" as "superb surprise" parallels Dickinson's own delight in poetic discourse as revelation "at a slant" and tallies with her description of poetry as untranslatable experience, as "Sumptuous destitution," and as those moments "when abroad seems close." It derives from Transcendentalist ideas of genius and theories of inspiration. The proof of genius is that suggestive, even extravagant statement can occasion illumination and profound inner affect. Nineties reviewers steadily apply this model to Dickinson, describing her poems ballistically as the "swift revelations" of "lyrical projectiles" (348, 336), frequently comparing her to other American sages and seers: to Thoreau in fourteen notices, to Whitman in twenty, and to Emerson in fifty-six. The Boston Sunday Herald begins its review, "Madder rhymes one has seldom seen—scornful disregard of poetic technique could hardly go farther—and yet there is about the book a fascination, a power, a vision that enthralls you, and draws you back to it again and again" (34).

Startling originality, strangeness, and vision are some of the reviewers' most frequent terms for Dickinson's attractiveness to them. A related cluster contains words associated with masculinity: strength, power, vigor, and magnetism. In her study of antebellum fiction reviewing, Nina Baym remarks that on the subject of style.

the most common word of praise was "vigorous," and along with it came such related terms as animated, powerful, terse, bold, nervous, vivid, vivacious, spirited, warm, elastic, impassioned, salient, racy, energetic, original, direct, expressive, sprightly. The second most common operative concept was most often expressed by the word "graceful," along with its relatives: melodious, fluent, flowing, harmonious, sweet, cadenced.

She points out that "vigor in style was associated with the masculine, grace with the feminine" and that when fiction reviewers had to choose between the two they preferred vigor.13 Nineties reviewers are intensely aware of Dickinson writing as a woman, yet most of the adjectives of praise for her thought and oracular manner suggest that the poet's genius has masculine components. As the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin put it, "Her verse … was epigrammatic in quality and almost masculine in the vigor of its underlying thought" (385).

Not surprisingly, critics relate the other central interest of Dickinson's poems, their emotional expressiveness, to her womanhood. "They are the poems," said the Christian Inquirer, "of a woman, in that their inspiration is that of subtle feeling rather than philosophic thought." Especially disclosing Dickinson's heart is her "comprehending sympathy" (127, 128). "Sympathy" is a frequent word in reviews of the nineties, one fundamental to the friendship ethos of nineteenth-century literary culture. It reflects a deep sense of bonding, of inner sharing, and of spiritual knowing and kindredness discovered with nature, between persons, and as between friends, between author and reader.

When the nineties reviewers give so much attention to their subject author's personal traits, as they do with Dickinson's sympathy, they are not substituting shallow filiopietism for the critic's job of work. They are sketching the poet's implied character, and in so doing they are talking about their experience of intimacy with the speaker of the poems and the "best" self in themselves that that experience brings forth. When reviewers remark on the Amherst poet's "sympathy," whether the immediate context is her empathy with nature or with those who suffer, the implied larger reference is to readers' pleasure in like responding to like, their spirits vibrating with the soul of the writer.

In other words, reviewers feel themselves "supposed." Dickinson evokes for them pleasures similar to those produced by delineation of character in nineteenth-century fiction with its demand for psychological characterization wherein "human passions respond to their own description." "For every man recognizing in himself the elements of character delineated," Harper's had declared in 1860, "recognizes also the fidelity of the picture of their inevitable operation in life—sees himself openly revealed—his secret sympathies, impulses, ambitions—his vices, his virtues, his temptations; and follows with terrible fascination the course of his undeveloped future—passes thoughtful and alarmed, and hangs back upon the very edge of sorrow and destruction."14 Dickinson's "very great power," reports the Chicago Figaro, "thus concentrated, has laid bare many emotions that we all hide deep down in our hearts, thoughts … we hardly are conscious of thinking until these vivid words light up with flashes here and there that deep, dark undercurrent of life from which arise, almost unbidden, the best and the worst that is in us" (118).

In associating poetry that "breathes" with human presence, these Dickinson readers mirror the affectivist aesthetic of Matthew Arnold, who valued poetry because of its direct appeal, in his words, "to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time."15 These responses also reflect one of the chief pleasures associated with novel reading, in which "deep emotion called up on another's behalf was morally uplifting."16

At least provisionally, Dickinson's reviewers tend to keep mental and emotional responses to poetry distinct, as if they are separate poles of experience, as different as male and female. Thus, the issue of Dickinson's femininity is never far from their minds. Reviewers are sure Dickinson is a genius, and there is no doubt about her womanliness, yet with many models of male genius they had but few of undoubted female genius. They had Sappho, but among modern examples there were George Sand, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charlotte Brontë, all of whom were strong in thought and all of whose work was regarded as thematically unfeminine. Poetry commentators of the 1890s speak of Dickinson as fiction reviewers had of George Sand in the 1840s: "Next to the pleasure of talking about one's-self to a sympathizing listener, is the expression of one's secret thoughts by another and a superior mind."17 The omnipresence of words of power and their contiguity with the word "genius" suggest that the stunning epigrammatic force of Dickinson's thought fits easily into the male model of genius foremost in readers' minds. The Figaro's review of the first volume begins: "Strange product of heredity, environment and climate are these profound, far-reaching, often unmusical 'poems' of Emily Dickinson's. They are instinct with a woman's sensitiveness, and yet are strong with the fearlessness of a man. With sudden flashes of genius," it continues, "she touches the very heart of things" (118).

If these readers enjoy the almost masculine flash and force of her thought, Dickinson also provokes in them constantly heightening sympathies, leading to uplifting communion with her. Realizing Dickinson spiritually is indistinct from appreciating what they believe her presence is founded in, her female "nature." Her poems, they readily admit, lack feminine grace and finish in their forms of expression. But everywhere they have womanly feeling, as the Independent claims about her poem on her second baptism into maturity, "I'm ceded, I stopped being theirs" (53). Godey's Magazine notes that the poems are not only womanly and feminine; they have "housewifeliness" (502). This strong sense of gender derives partly from Dickinson's focus on themes common to female verse, such as womanhood, home, human relationships, melancholy, and death. For this community of readers, she is the very model of retiring womanhood, strong in endurance and fortitude, capable of intense feeling for nature, able to discriminate among and tellingly render the various states of the human soul. With the precision of a woman genius (ten critics compare her to Emily Brontë in this respect), her poetry expresses, at its best, what the nineties assume is a characteristically feminine sensitivity to human feeling.

Some reviewers also respond to her as a "type" of woman in a more restricted sense. William Dean Howells's influential nineties review describes the new poet in terms of local color portraiture: her native themes and her "heart of full womanhood" derive from "tendencies inherent in the New England, or the Puritan, spirit" (77, 74).18 Henry Lyman Koopman, writing for the magazine of Brown University, argues that qualities that appear now as only idiosyncratic to Dickinson will, as the race advances, emerge as general characteristics of womankind. Dickinson prefigures, Koopman continues, what women in literature would soon make plainer: "Woman is at once more conservative and more lawless than man; more abandoned both to love and to hate; more intense in imagination and sympathy, but narrower; capable of an apparently intellectual enthusiasm that really springs from the affections" (512).

Others find Dickinson hauntingly expressive of feminine repression. The New York Commercial Advertiser attributes her poems' "strange visions" and their "extreme hunger" for "human companionship" to "her woman nature" (85). Gertrude Meredith, writing a poem in tribute, confesses:

I hold her volume in my hand, With half my mind I snatch its words: (The other half enough affords For listening and answer bland). She was a woman, too, it seems, Whom life not wholly satisfied; She loved: more heartily, she died; To die's the keener in her dreams. And I, who flagged, my zeal renew: The trivial's phantom-terrors flee This witness of reality. I can live more since death's so true.(129)

Caroline Healey Dall, prominent in the women's rights movement, is among a dozen nineties reviewers who connect Dickinson with Marie Bashkirtseff, a cosmopolitan Russian painter whose posthumous diary had just been published, candidly revealing her experience of gender repression. Bashkirtseff's Journal, the moment-to-moment record of feelings and impulses, read like a novel and (according to its 1890 translator) described a woman "at odds with destiny, as such a soul must needs be, when endowed with great powers and possibilities … continually thwarted by the impediments and restrictions of sex."19 "Quite as remarkable a revelation" as Bashkirtseff's, writes Caroline Dall, "is to be found in the poems of Emily Dickinson." Like Gertrude Meredith, Dall finds Dickinson a catalyst for thinking about women's roles and women's fate. It is necessary to know more "of the poet's history," she says in her review, because "face to face with life and love, but above all with death and disappointment has this woman come. Nothing of human experience has she scorned, nothing evaded, and so critically has she tested what she has endured that few people will understand what they find in her alembic. Every line challenges much thinking…. The women who have this book in their hands have a good deal to think of" (121, 122).

This reading of the new poet as specifically revelatory for women unites admiration for both emotional and intellectual—and what corresponded in the logic of the period to female and male—sources of power. There is no question to reviewers that Dickinson speaks as a woman—in her style, which had reserve and (some dared to maintain) inner harmony; in her subjects, the domestic and the private; and in her tone, exalted, piquant, and pure. She also has spontaneity, "the birthright gift," according to the New York Critic, "of the lyric poet and of woman" (416). She has, above all, a woman's passions and sensitivity. But her words also carry rough, stunning, epigrammatic directness, just as her thought has the attraction, freshness, intelligence, and orphic force of assured genius.20

By the nineties, in other words, whatever strengths poets draw from, whether those of mind or heart, their office is to exert affective force. Poetry is a "hotted up" medium; when it works, something within reels and stumbles. As Dickinson herself puts it, describing the mysterious power of honest passionate language:

By homely gift and hindered Words The human heart is told Of Nothing— "Nothing" is the force That renovates the World.21

For her first commentators as well, even at its most visionary and cerebral, poetic expression remains ontologically separate from textuality, from words as impersonal objects. Arlo Bates describes the Amherst poet's "high muse" as an ability to express, androgynously, "real emotional thought" (29). Delineation of affect, not meaning, is her reviewers' goal.22 When both genius and sympathy are affectively felt, reading becomes a series of pleasing aftermaths: on the genius side, a kinetic push of forceful mental presence; on the sympathy side, a warmth or bonding response to personal presence. Writing as a craft can be studied and criticized, but these professional readers place distinctively literary experience, with poetry as it highest form, well beyond scientific analysis; one cannot parse while reeling from a blow or opening to love.

These nineties readers also isolate poetry from science by insisting on its mysteriousness. Dickinson's "high sort of seeing" contains elements of excitement, risk, surprise, intensity, awe, all with suggestions of the occult. Lilian Whiting, a frequent reviewer of Dickinson and a woman with a lifelong interest in spiritualism, remarks on mediumship when she finds the poems "'profound in thought and full of almost startling divination and insight" (26). There is in Dickinson's poems, says the Boston Evening Transcript, "a strange magic of meaning so ethereal that one must apprehend rather than comprehend it" (61). Her poems seem an enactment of breathed-forth fervor and passion within the affiliatory presence of moved spectators. For H. P. Schauffler in the Amherst Literary Monthly, it is not insights but "hope, remorse, anger, patriotism; these all seem to live and breathe out their various lights and shadows under the guiding influence of her magnetic touch" (226). This prospect of achieving "inner room" companionship with the poet is similarly imagined by the Boston Transcript: "Having been allowed by Mrs. Todd to enter into the outer chambers of knowledge of this poet in the first and second volumes, the door is opened in the third into an inner, a sacred room, whose air is the very breath of a human spirit" (458). The vestal. temple imagery elsewhere associated with her oracular thought here expresses expectations for personalized devotional experience, yearnings for deepened human relationships, modeled on that between Christ and the individual.23 The reader and poet become secret friends. Louise Chandler Moulton confesses to her Boston Herald readers. "With every page I turn and return I grow more and more in love" (37).

Reflecting this intimate friendship ethos, Dickinson's publisher. Roberts Brothers, regularly issued her 1890 Poems in delicate gift-book bindings. By sacramentalizing poetry reading (the best selves of "devoted" readers enjoying heart-to-heart communication with nearly divine poet-friends and preceptors), reviewers situate the reading experience at the farthest remove from rational explanation. This extreme subjectivizing of imaginative experience claims for poetry reading a world apart from Darwin and Spencer. Facing the supposedly superior objectivity of science and its increasing demands for objectivity and verifiability, critics move poetry to the sanctuary, hoping the temple doors will close behind them. Dickinson's gnomic accents accord well with this need to mystify the office of poetry. It is with the free spirits—the brilliant, untrammeled, and the enigmatical, like Blake and Emerson, Whitman and Browning—that the strength and originality of her thought reminds her first readers.24 She is a refresh ingly aboriginal presence in a literary world that already has as many "excellent formalists" as it needs (182). The Christian Register, which begins its review comparing Dickinson to an Aeolian harp, concludes that just as Browning and Emerson finally elude us, so "we cannot parse or analyze [her poems]." They "usher us into the deeper mysteries" (134, 135).

This strategy for dealing with the threat of science italicizes an ambivalence implicit in these reviews: that poetry, in a democratic age, is increasingly an elitist diversion. In terms of readership percentages, poetry during the century had steadily given way to fiction. But the review columns show little egalitarian interest in teaching poetry appreciation. As the poetry-reading life becomes increasingly personalized and sacralized, the less amenable to direct instruction (through explication) it becomes. The ability to take poetic pleasures becomes an unearned grace; one has it or does not. Though Dickinson's "odd" life draws attention, her typical notice primarily delineates the responses of the reviewer as a qualified reader. Reviews consist of brief excerpts from poems, each tagged with such impressionistic comment as "noble and inspiring" (107). Readers learn not how to read but whether they belong among "poetry Lovers." When their responses tally with the reviewers', they are confirmed as sensitive readers. The Amherst Literary Monthly is typical in phrasing its remarks as polite exclamations: "Note the dainty touch" and "Mark the power of naturalness both in thought and expression. Why you feel perfectly at home when that thought, clad in its simple, unadorned attire, greets your mind" (150). The way to write a review in the nineties is to identify the various affects a new volume of verse evokes, illustrating each through brief quotation.

Literary litmus tests cannot enlarge poetry's potential audience; they serve, rather, to confirm the reading fitness and practice of those who consult reviews, a community already presumably experienced and confident as readers of verse. Reviewers assume alliance with their readers on the basis of mutual love of good poetry, and almost none of them, at the outset of Dickinson's debut, predict a wide readership for the new poet. Her intellect seems too bold and sibylline and her sentiments too rare and delicate ("too little flesh and blood") to attract the common reader. When, to everyone's surprise, she achieves popularity, many express relief, as if her booming sales are unlooked for but welcome evidence that poetry still functions in an egalitarian culture. The democratic ethos apparent here also finds expression in her reviewers' disinclination, overtly at least, to base their judgments on learning and taste. But as Dickinson's reception develops, her popularity begins to be held against her, especially by the most influential high-culture arbiters.25 Critics express their impressions as if certain of their universality, but their exclusive reliance on subjectivity demonstrates little confidence that her poetry can appeal to those outside the steadily decreasing circle of persons like themselves. The Boston Transcript's, insistence (noted earlier) that Dickinson must be apprehended, not comprehended, implies a self-selected community of qualified readers who, in perusing reviews, expect the pleasures of self-confirmation and the "social" reward (union with the reviewer) of sharing "high-minded" and like-minded felicities. Reading poems and reading reviews have much in common. "Those who are fit," says the Springfield Republican of Dickinson, "will read and know themselves divined" (21).

Taken as a whole, these notices demonstrate how social constructions of femininity and masculinity worked on Dickinson's behalf when her first book entered the literary marketplace. As reading expectations for fiction and especially for poetry moved toward increased intimacy, mystery, and sacred personalism, her voice and the way it constructed the writer-reader relationship ("These are my letters to the world") found ready acceptance. Dickinson, her-self an avid fiction reader, reflected that crossover of sacred tears from fiction to poetry when she exclaimed to Susan Gilbert in the fifties: "I would paint a portrait which would bring the tears, had I canvass for it, and the scene should be—solitude, and the figures—solitude—and the lights and shades, each a solitude. I could fill a chamber with landscapes so lone, men should pause and weep there:"26

In fiction of worth, said the Christian Examiner in the same decade (when the poet was in her twenties), there must be "some ingenuity of contrivance to keep the mind of the reader suspended and engaged, and swept forward, while it is swayed to and fro, by curiosity and emotion, and a constantly heightening sympathy."27 Nineties readers respond to Dickinson (as the poet did to her favorite authors) as a friend and correspondent, bold, brilliant, attractive, and passionate, a loved presence evoking uplifting feelings. For her first reviewers, Dickinson's half-veiled verses have the power to engage and sweep them forward, in comprehending sympathy. When fulfilled, these expectations constitute poetry's special exhilaration and expanse. But it is an expanse perceived only by a coterie of knowing respondents, whose sympathies testify to the mysterious power of poetry even as their reading strategies rarefy that power.


This essay is dedicated to David Porter, organizer of the Emily Dickinson International Conference entitled "Emily Dickinson in Public," held in Amherst, Mass., October 27-28, 1989, at which an earlier version of this paper was presented.

1 Before publication Niles confessed, "It has always seemed to me that it would be unwise to perpetuate Miss Dickinson's poems" (quoted in Millicent Todd Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson [New York: Harper's, 1945] 53).

2 Willis Buckingham, ed., Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1989). An appendix summarizes sales records, printing by printing, of each Dickinson volume published in the nineties (557-58). All page references in the text are to reviews collected in this volume. In subsequent note references this volume is cited as EDR.

3 The writers largely responsible for Dickinson's emergence, especially during the first weeks, were contributors to dailies and weeklies in New England. She was a "Boston fad" before the national monthlies had a chance to comment. On the phenomenon of the "reviewers' book" see Cathy N. Davidson, "Toward a History of Books and Readers," in Reading in America: Literature and Social History, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989) 20-21.

4 It has been a commonplace of twentieth-century Dickinson scholarship that the poet was poorly received and understood when first published. A "war-of-thecritics" approach to her reception caused this impression in part; by treating opposed views equally, this method overrepresented the handful of critics who cleverly savaged Dickinson's verse. For example, Caesar R. Blake and Carlton J. Wells reprinted sixteen 1890s reviews in their Recognition of Emily Dickinson (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1964) 3-68. Among them, six were strongly positive, three ambivalent, and seven strongly negative. The 600 items assembled in EDR indicate a largely favorable early response.

5 Of course, using reviews as cultural evidence is itself an interpretive act and does not substitute for reading the reviews themselves.

6 Oates continues: "We can analyze our [Victorian] ancestors' stated beliefs, and the philosophical, sociological, political, and psychological foundations of those beliefs, but it is virtually impossible for us to believe: we read their musical notations but we can't hear them…. Hamlet is our contemporary, Emma Bovary is our contemporary, even Swift's Gulliver is our contemporary, but what of the numberless heroines of the best-selling novels of 1850-1950?" ("Pleasure, Duty, Redemption Then and Now: Susan Warner's Diana" American Literature 59 [1987]: 423). Fred Kaplan makes a similar point in Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987) 4-5.

7 Among nineties reviewers different and overlapping subgroups can be identified—principally by the specific readerships they implicitly and explicitly address: well- or less-educated readers, regional audiences, college students, housewives, those interested in book trade news or literary gossip, those choosing books as special occasion gifts, etc. Nevertheless, nineties commentators seldom show interest, on the surface at least, in identifying themselves as a special kind of poetry reader, nor do they reflect differences among their presumed auditors, except when they comment on the difficulty of Dickinson's poetry and its accessibility to the general as opposed to the "discerning" reader. Some of those who stress the poet's thought are concerned, especially in the first weeks and months of her reception, that her work is too oracular to appeal to the common reader. Those who respond primarily to Dickinson's power of character usually have no such worries; they assume that the force of her personal presence will be transparent to all.

8 The intended audience of these professional reviewers, of course, consists of persons curious about new poetry books, a "literary class" of readers. However, professional critics and journalists may constitute a "high culture" community, or they may reflect what they believe their readers ought to appreciate rather than what they honestly enjoy themselves. EDR, attempting as it does to collect all known comment on the poet, includes representation from the humbler magazines and papers (such as religious and home weeklies and smaller city dailies). Even so, we need to be aware of an unvoiced readership in the nineties, just as today inexpensive editions in bookstores and cardshops testify to a Dickinson constituency not represented in the academic community.

9 Dickinson's poems occasioned fierce debate between those who believed poetry could dispense with traditional form and finish and those who believed it could not. For example, T. W. Higginson claimed on the poet's behalf that "when a thought takes one's breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence" (EDR 14). T. B. Aldrich countered: "But an ungrammatical thought does not, as a general thing, take one's breath away, except in a sense the reverse of flattering" (284).

10 A surprising number of nineties reviewers, admitting the absence of conventional metrics in Dickinson, nevertheless rejoiced in her "wilding" music; see EDR items 27, 44, 51, 64, 135, 145, 263, 334, 419, 441, 495, 557. For a recent study of the poet's sound as it relates to meaning, see Judy Jo Small, Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson's Rhyme (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990).

11 Interestingly, neither Mabel Loomis Todd nor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, co-editors of the 1890 Poems, used "genius" in their prepublication promo tional articles on the new poet. However, they were quick to use the term once others had applied it.

12 The nineties reception reinforces a model of reading which is active and engaged rather than merely passive. See Cathy N. Davidson's discussion of Rolf Engelsing's theory that as books became mass-produced, readers read extensively rather than intensively ("Towards a History of Books and Readers" 14-18).

13 Nina Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984) 131.

14 Ibid. 107, 55; Harper's quoted in ibid. 55.

15The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960) 1:4.

16 Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers 141.

17 Quoted in ibid. 52. Higginson once wrote to Dickinson, "It is hard to understand how you can live so alone, with thoughts of such a quality coming up in you" (quoted in Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Letters of Emily Dickinson [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958] 2:461).

18 Howells's "Editor's Study" review drew notice because of his fame and the literary heft of Harper's Monthly. His essay resonated as late as 1896, when the Boston Transcript observed, "This New England woman was a type of her race" (EDR 505). Howells's comments may also have been notable to Harper's subscribers because his "Editor's Study" infrequently devoted itself to poetry, especially to new poets; see James W. Simpson, ed., Introduction, Editor's Study by William Dean Howells (Troy: Whitston, 1983) xxxviii.

19 Mathilde Blind, trans., Introduction, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff (London: Cassell, 1890) l:[vii]-viii.

20 In her study of antebellum fiction reviewing, Nina Baym stresses the tendency of critics to place restrictions on individuality for female characters and for women authors. Though many of those writing about Dickinson in the nineties enjoy her feminine presence, in general she is admired for some "womanly virtues" (freshness, charm, naturalness) more than others Baym mentions (unselfishness, inexperience, grace). The poet's most appealing personal quality for both male and female critics appears to be the freedom and individuality (at the level of genius) which Baym feels was specifically denied women novelists before the war: "Where the novel, generally speaking, was defined as a field for the expression of the individual author, possibly rising to genius, it was defined in the case of the woman author as a field for the expression of the sex, in which case genius in the large sense is out of the question, since the most she can do is lose herself in gender and hence sacrifice the individuality that is the foundation of genius" (Novels, Readers, and Reviewers 103, 257).

21The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955) 3:1077 (as numbered in this edition, poem 1563).

22 See Jane P. Tompkins's discussion of the importance of personal experience in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary interpretation, "The Reader in History," in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980) esp. 216-19, 224-26.

23 See Richard Rabinowitz, The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life: The Transformation of Personal Religious Experience in Nineteenth-Century New England (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989) 180.

24 For nineties comparisons of Dickinson to particular authors and artists see "Index and Finding List," EDR.

25 See Introduction, EDR xviii-xix.

26 Johnson, Letters 1:310. Barton St. Armand finds parallels between Dickinson's vision here and "nineteenth-century emblem books and other folk works, especially popular 'sandpaper' drawings" (Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984] 222).

27 Quoted in Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers 78.

R. McClure Smith (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13421

SOURCE: "'He Asked If I Was His': The Seductions of Emily Dickinson," in ESQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1994, pp. 27-65.

[In the following essay, Smith traces the influence of Dickinson 's relationship to the "disciplinary power of her patriarchal culture, " arguing that this power struggle is portrayed in Dickinson 's use of the "trope of seduction. "]

The poetry of Emily Dickinson is a superb testing ground for any literary analysis that emphasizes historical considerations. Indeed, while recent critical studies that attempt to "relate" Dickinson to her contemporary culture are interesting and informative, it would be more difficult to argue that any are particularly revelatory. I would suggest that the affinities such studies trace between the poet's culture and her text are of limited validity due to the implicit determinism of their method.1 The central problem with these critical texts (and, to a degree, also their merit) is their monologic ambition. Each assumes that literary text and history can be distinguished as foreground and background and that the devices through which the text refracts or reflects that contextual background are therefore easily observable for the critical analyst. As a result, these critical studies go on to find (by partially constructing) a series of historical master narratives that demonstrate how Dickinson's poetry was unequivocally determined by the culture within which it was embedded.

While every expressive act is certainly embedded in a network of material practices, literary and nonliterary texts circulate inseparably in such a way that observing the intermingling of cultural and social events proves more problematic than a deterministic historical approach would allow. Therefore, this study pursues decidedly more limited, essentially local ambitions: it traces one particular negotiation or exchange between the social and cultural fields of antebellum New England by examining how a particular discursive field may have influenced (as opposed to determined) Dickinson's literary and linguistic imagination. From the outset, however, I want to acknowledge the necessary partiality of my own historical reading. My suggestion that Dickinson's self and text were defined by her relationship to the disciplinary power of her patriarchal culture—a power perfectly figured and dissolved in the trope of seduction—is decidedly partial both in the sense of being incomplete (as one discursive field among many) and in being a critically constructed narrative (one to which I have myself clearly become partial). My own analysis, therefore, should be regarded as a "negotiation" between Dickinson's poetic text and the critical approach of new historicism or cultural poetics that, in its own attempt at critical mastery, seeks to "seduce" that text.


Critics of Dickinson's poetry have often been intrigued by what Joanne Dobson characterizes as a "particularly intense constellation of images, situations, and statement in her poetry [that] reveals an intriguing preoccupation with masculinity, and, more particularly, with a facet of masculinity that is perceived as simultaneously omnipotent, fascinating, and deadly."2 Indeed, this obvious preoccupation led Clark Griffith to suggest that Dickinson "stood in dread of everything masculine, so that one of the bogies she fled from was nothing less than the awful and the implacable idea of him."' Griffith correctly points out that although Dickinson's poetic victims and victimizers take many forms, the former are usually feminine figures and the latter invariably masculine: the female child is molested by a male sea or equally tormented by a male God;4 female flowers are blasted by a male frost (391), while the female morning is betrayed by an uncaring male sun (232); the female narrator is sent scurrying by a male snake (986) or driven to eternity by a ghostly coachman (712)—all apparent evidence that Dickinson came to regard "cosmic depredations as depredations practiced by one sex upon the other." Griffith observes that "[f]ar too often to be either chance or coincidence, the 'loved one' arrives on the scene to alarm as well as to delight; his actions threaten even as they gratify; and the possibilities he extends are always somehow double-edged, so that love shades off into pursuit, betrothal can easily become seduction."5 Certainly, in Dickinson's poetry the reader frequently finds a female speaker whose narrative emphasizes her own passivity, weakness, and insignificance. That speaker is locationally dwarfed by proximity to the powerful presence of a clearly superior masculine force. When that force is personified and directly addressed as God, Lover, Father, King, Emperor, Lord, or Master, the speaker's relative powerlessness invariably defines the relationship. Within such a system of established hierarchy, the speaker often characterizes herself as the tiny "Daisy" juxtaposed to the "Immortal Alps" (124) and the "Himmaleh" (481) or unflatteringly paired with the "Great Caesar!" (102) who is her "Her Lord" (339).

Dickinson's experience of antebellum culture must have provided ample evidence of the ways male power had been codified not only in patriarchal religion and the institution of marriage but also in an essentially masculine poetic tradition. The exercise of power, whether social, religious, or aesthetic, and the assertion of masculinity were virtually simultaneous activities. Given that fact, Dobson has chosen to interpret the masculine figure in Dickinson's poetry as a composite image of appropriated power: the poet's desire for a power that she inevitably associated with the masculine impelled her to reconstruct a male archetype that could effectively symbolize that power. Readers of the poetry, according to Dobson, witness a complex figuration of Dickinson's imagined relationship to a male muse, or Jungian animus, a relationship she often regarded as one of potential threat and probable subordination. Dobson's conclusion parallels that reached by a number of her critical predecessors—most obviously, Adrienne Rich, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Albert Gelpi—who have variously asserted that the hierarchical relationship between Dickinson's poetic narrators and a variety of male others does not necessarily express or examine a relationship between individuals but instead meditates in quintessentially romantic fashion on the relationship between the poet and her creative imagination.6

Though interesting, this critical perspective is distinctly limited in its ability to recognize any more overt social critique. Most obviously, confining the male/female relationship figured within the poems to an internal agon of the female psyche presumes the poet's relative disinterest in the more significant external power dynamics that contributed to her particular aesthetic problem. It is both more interesting and more plausible to argue that while the male figure in the poems is indeed a "composite figure" of power, he is also a recognizable derivation of a more specific and identifiable sociohistorical "character." In fact, Dobson suggests as much herself, albeit inadvertently, when she asserts that "[t]he Death as Lover configuration that is such an inextricable part of Dickinson's mythos of masculinity is vitally relevant to the understanding of this seductive aspect of her negative animus," and that "Because I could not stop for Death" (712) and "Death is the supple Suitor" (1445) are "explicit in their assignment of this characteristic of the masterful seducer to the death figure."7 Dobson is perfectly correct (as was Griffith) in characterizing the composite male figure as seductive, not least because he derives in large part from the cultural image of the "masterful seducer" so common in the discourse of antebellum women.

In August 1847, the sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson was preparing to begin her first (and only) year as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary at South Hadley. When on 13 August the Hampshire and Franklin Express published an article on the tenth anniversary commencement of that "flourishing institution," it would therefore have been of considerable interest to the young student. In that article, the correspondent declares himself most impressed by the graduating class, particularly by their public display of knowledge; he observes that during the pupils' public examinations "the questions were promptly and adequately answered and distinctly expressed, evincing a thorough discipline to render them so familiar with their subjects," and that their performance as singers "gave a gratifying proof of their proficiency in music, and showed how many had cultivated it, and with what success." The commencement examinations proved to be a fine advertisement for Principal Mary Lyon's educational establishment.

As Dickinson would have expected to participate in a similar ceremony, this report might interest a scholar who chose to argue that the poet's year at Mount Holyoke was particularly significant. For example, the fact that the graduating class "were all plainly attired in white, without any artificial ornaments," might have some relevance to the poet's later choice of a plain white dress as her idiosyncratic personal signature; that dress, it could be argued, was an eccentrically personal compensation for the college graduation she never had, or perhaps the sign of her individual poetic graduation, a surprising "collegially" conceived cosmic white election. Equally suggestive might be the four major compositions written by the students that year: the "beautifully written" "Coronation and the Execution"; the satirical "Fashion"; the cryptic "Earth had but Two—and one she gave to Fame, and one to God"; and "The Two Friends" (a piece that makes particular reference to two Mount Holyoke pupils who had died during the course of the school year). The thematic grounding of much of the Dickinson poetic canon seems to parallel the content of those student essays, suggesting that the poet's interests in crowning and transcendence, temporality and satire, renunciation and election, and death and the memory of the departed were far from peculiar to her. Clearly, the details of the Express report on the graduation ceremony could be used to argue that the ambience of Mount Holyoke College under Lyon had an even more formative influence on Dickinson's thought than has previously been suggested.

The newspaper column that contains the report of the Mount Holyoke commencement is placed (not surprisingly) beside those for Amherst Academy and Amherst College. But it has a more striking adjacency with a parallel column that contains a rather different narrative, a narrative that is only in the most oblique sense of the word "educational." This article, captioned in bold type "THE LATE SEDUCTION CASE IN NEW YORK," describes in detail the arrest of one Michael Hare, a married man of twenty-eight, who had eloped with the fifteen-year-old daughter of his employer, a Mr. Fox of New York City. Since his arrest, Hare had proven himself an early adept at the technique of blaming the victim, accusing the unfortunate Miss Fox of seducing him. The Hampshire and Franklin Express was suitably outraged by this behavior and quoted approvingly, and at length, from the previous week's New York Tribune, which had extended its report on the affair into a full scale editorial declaration.8 It is worth quoting the reprinted excerpt from the Tribune editorial in full:

But the practical question in the business is this: Shall anything be DONE to subject such villains to the wholesome discipline of Law? Hare is now in custody, and in this city, but seduction is not reckoned as a crime by our laws! Attempts will be made to bring him to justice on a charge of bigamy (he having, it is said, got some sort of a marriage with his victim) or on that of larceny, in taking away the clothes of the girl. But the essential and horrible crime of violating his marriage vows, deserting her he had ever sworn to love and cherish, and seducing his childish prey from her home of innocence and love to the haunts of pollution and shame is not at all forbidden by the laws of New York. Shall this continue? We do not remember that one of the journals now vociferous against Hare ever aided to arouse the public mind to the necessity of providing legal penalties for crimes like this. Will they now take hold? Will the press generally speak out on this subject? Had any hungry wretch stolen from Mr. Fox a few spoons worth twenty dollars, the law directs that the culprit shall be punished therefore by several years' imprisonment at hard labor in the State Prison; but for the most perjured and base Seduction it has no penalty whatever! Why is this? Can it be deemed uncharitable if we say it is because our law-makers are seldom thieves, in the legal sense, but are too generally libertines? Why else is the most flagrant crime next to murder left unpunished while minor and even venial offences are visited with merciless severity? Why is it? Why?

Like the Mount Holyoke commencement report, this editorial is suggestive material for a Dickinson scholar, providing an arresting narrative—an antebellum fable of the Fox and the Hare—that could facilitate the historical setting of a critical narrative. For example, the angry polemic of the editorial (of which I shall say more later), though more usually confined to local political discourse, is not at all unusual in the Express. That diatribe suggests that while the refined delicacy of sentimentalism had a major place in the Hampden County press of 1847, it was not necessarily the predominant tone. The Express's use of the Tribune editorial might serve as a critical corrective, conveniently reminding Dickinson's twentieth-century readers that her hometown was a place where political, religious, and personal passions had been known to run high and that the occasional anger in her poetic voice might be as much an expression of her culture as is her periodic indulgence in maudlin sentiment. And beyond the tone of the report, the space assigned to it vividly demonstrates that the local Amherst newspapers were not averse to printing sensationalistic and not particularly edifying news. Such a brief perusal of the local press could modify the contemporary reader's assumption—an assumption based on the apparent thematic concerns of Dickinson's poetry—that antebellum Amherst was a repressive enclave of survivalist puritanism.

Clearly, a little critical prestidigitation of the details in these two articles could construct a rereading of Dickinson's cultural milieu that could, in turn, be connected to her later poetic strategies. While tempted by that smoke and mirrors approach to history, I have chosen a different route of access to those poetic strategies, one not quite so dependent on the dangerously assumed principle of causality. Instead, I would suggest that what can be learned from the narrative content of the two articles is not nearly as interesting as the questions provoked by their parallel placement on the page. Was it simply an editorial lapse that led to their striking adjacency? How would the antebellum Amherst reader have dealt with that strange juxtaposition of commencement and seduction narratives on the same page? Even more interestingly, how would the sixteen-year-old female reader have reacted? Would she have interpreted the adjacent columns as separate and distinct paths, as possible alternative futures for herself, as diametrically opposed fates that could befall her?

In fact, the antebellum reader would not have recognized the juxtaposition as jarring because the same cultural discourse that produced the editorial diatribe provoked by the Fox seduction informed the education of the 1847 Mount Holyoke graduating class. Briefly, I want to return to that class and focus on one particularly rigorous examination that graduating students were expected to undergo. On the Wednesday of commencement week, the major examination of the graduating class concerned Milton's Paradise Lost. The details were not reported in the newspaper, but presumably this was the same examination that had been in place for the previous four years. For example, an Express reporter writing about the 8 August 1845 commencement describes "an examination of nearly or quite the entire graduating class in Paradise Lost, under the direction of Miss Lyon," during which "the poem was analyzed, some of its more striking beauties pointed out, and its agreement with scripture shown by reference to lines and texts." The reporter observes that "it must have been a thorough discipline to render the class so familiar with its structures." The commencement report for the following year, printed in the 14 August 1846 edition of the Express, usefully goes into more detail about what was required of that graduating class's hermeneutic skills as they were applied to Milton's text:

The analysis of the "Argument" was full and discriminating. It comprised a sketch of the ends designed by the Poet, and the means used to reach them, the characters that figure and the parts they act. On the learned allusions of the text, the Encyclopedia had been patiently consulted. And from the Scriptures, passages were read elucidating the theology of the classic. Evidently the young ladies had forgiven the severity of the poet to his daughters.

The would-be graduate of Mount Holyoke apparently was expected to leave with as thorough a knowledge of Paradise Lost as she had of the King James Bible.

Paradise Lost is the quintessential narrative of seduction. In Milton's epic, as in Genesis, Satan is the first tempter of woman into sin, the first successful seducer. It is Satan's subtle persuasion of Eve, his rhetorical seduction, that introduces into the discourse of humanity the possibility of using linguistic signs to deceive. And it is precisely that initial satanic cunning, the playing on a feminine vulnerability to flattery and verbal wile, that deprives the Christian search for redemption of its ultimate reliability, leaving it instead to construct a massive metaphorical and typological apparatus that can cope with the semantics of deceit initiated by the Edenic interloper. Ironically, therefore, it is also that satanic cunning, that awareness of the deceptively seductive powers of rhetoric, that first makes poetry possible. If living in a Christian dispensation of necessity requires an awareness of the dangerous power of satanic seduction, then living in a poetic dispensation requires the simultaneous awareness of the attractiveness of that seduction.

In some ways, however, Satan's rhetorical seduction of Eve is a decidedly ambiguous affair, especially when the Genesis narrative of the Fall is read through the reinterpretive lens of Paradise Lost. The Miltonic narrative of the Fall of Man subtly implicates Eve herself as a candidate for the first successful seducer. The pivotal point of this interpretation is the moment when Satan, stunned into immobility, unobtrusively observes the beauty of Eve and is tempted to be her seducer. It is eminently possible to view Satan as a tempter tempted. Indeed, it might well be argued that from Paradise Lost onward, the literary representation of woman predetermines (or perhaps overdetermines) her as the agent of sin through the desire she inspires rather than through any desire she herself experiences. After her encounter with Satan, Eve seduces Adam through the medium of her own double allure, her physical and verbal charms working in irresistible tandem. As every subsequent literary seduction scene can be read as an allegory of the Fall, we must be alert to the ambiguities implicit in these first seductions. In particular, the Edenic seductions of Paradise Lost suggest the "victim's" culpability, since she appears to be susceptible to the straying. What makes Eve such a fascinating character is her paradoxical doubleness: she is the seductive seducee. Whatever Milton's narrative intention, his representation of an Eve who, even in her passivity, powerfully controls male figures might be far from negative for a woman reader. Indeed, the figure of a latently subversive Eve, the first "fallen woman," proved particularly useful to the antebellum woman writer seeking a suitable model of empowerment. After all, Eve's disobedience is the first challenge to patriarchal authority: a direct challenge to God and man. Feminist critics propose that Victorian novels by women are subtle rewritings of the Fall myth that conflate women's sexuality, power, and hunger in a new literary order of transgression. In general, the notion of trespass comes to represent a significant source of power for the woman writer. More specifically, Eve's desire, or perhaps more accurately her desirability, comes to represent that decentering power. Of course, the appropriation and rewriting of the Fall myth was especially necessary for women poets of the era, who had to confront Milton's "bogey," the most dangerous of poetic precursors, as a more direct threat.9

In the Miltonic universe of Paradise Lost, the Fall has major consequences not only for the users of language but also for language itself. In order to effect any physical seduction, the would-be seducer must first "produce felicitous language."10 In other words, the seducer must be an exemplary rhetorician. Indeed, a rhetorician might well be defined as a seducer of language, for in the etymological sense of "seduction" (seducere), the rhetorician purposely leads language astray. Throughout Paradise Lost, Satan is an exceptional rhetorician, an exemplary seducer, a prototypical poet. Similarly, as the fallen Adam and Eve soon learn, the immediate consequences of eating from the Tree of Knowledge are the death of humankind and the birth of rhetoric. Milton's Fall is therefore also metaphorical to the degree that it signifies a fall into metaphor. What enters the lapsarian world with death is the deviation of language into a series of seductive possibilities: language as an unnecessary but delicious ornament; language as the means to covert insinuation; language as the means to use and manipulate others; language as rhetoric pure and simple. For Milton, language determined by rhetorical intention is corrupt because rhetoric deviates words from their originally perfect correspondence with nature into a misleading, intrinsically evil entity.

The attitude of Milton, the religious poet who found the uses of rhetoric intrinsically satanic, toward his own poetry is therefore distinctly paradoxical. That paradox is implicit in Paradise Lost, which often seems to be the epic narrative of its author's regret that poetry is possible. While Milton's doubled attitude toward rhetoric can easily be overlooked by the reader predisposed to religious orthodoxy, it was blatantly apparent to the later romantic poets who, more committed to problems of art than problems of faith, would willfully misread the epic poem as Milton's troubled satanic manifesto. This might lead one to expect that a young quasi-romantic poet, herself a distinctly unorthodox Christian who was probably quite familiar with the text of Paradise Lost and its deviations from the original Genesis text, would read the poem in a similarly critical light.

And Dickinson appears to have done just that. During her year at Mount Holyoke the significance of the text might well have been instilled in her. Certainly, there was a copy of Paradise Lost in the Dickinson family library from which the poet directly quoted in a number of letters. As Jack Capps observes, "On two separate occasions [in Letter 304] she refers to Eve's reluctant departure from Eden, and both instances seem closer to Milton's description of the expulsion than the concluding verses of the third chapter of Genesis."11 It is likely that Dickinson did just what a Mount Holyoke student was expected to do: reinterpret the King James Bible through the filter of its Miltonic rewriting.

What Dickinson seems to have derived most from Milton is a paradoxical attitude toward her own art, a sense that her calling as a poet was simultaneously an invitation to sin. This paradoxical attitude is most evident in her frequently troubled identification with the figure of Eve. Of course, it was in a distinctly playful vein that Dickinson confided in an early letter, "I have lately come to the conclusion that I am Eve, alias Mrs. Adam. You know there is no account of her death in the Bible, and why am I not Eve?" (9). But the recurrence of Eve imagery elsewhere makes it one of her most significant tropes,12 particularly when connected with her early tendency to associate her "calling" to poetry with a dangerous external temptation and her later resistance to that temptation. This is a heretical Dickinson who remarks, "I dont wonder that good angels weep—and bad ones sing songs," and who famously comments on what we may well assume is her poetic vocation, "I have dared to do strange things—bold things, and have asked no advice from any—I have heeded beautiful tempters, yet do not think I am wrong" (Letters 30 and 35). The explication of "beautiful tempters" is perhaps self-evident, but if not, it is succinctly explained in other vivid exploratory letters of her late adolescence:

I think of the perfect happiness I experienced while I felt I was an heir of heaven as of a delightful dream, out of which the Evil one bid me wake & again return to the world & its pleasures. Would that I had not listened to his winning words! … But the world allured me & in an unguarded moment I listened to her syren voice. From that moment I seemed to lose my interest in heavenly things by degrees. (11)

Here Dickinson imagines herself a type of the tempted Eve, an identification repeated in a letter to her friend Jane Humphries: while charitable works, she writes, may provide the opportunity "for turning my back to this very sinful, and wicked world[, s]omehow or other I incline to other things—and Satan covers them up with flowers, and I reach out to pick them. The path of duty looks very ugly indeed—and the place where I want to go more amiable—a great deal—it is so much easier to do wrong than right—so much pleasanter to be evil than good" (30). This is an Eve susceptible to the direct seductions of rhetorical possibility, the latent poet surrendering to her daemon. Moreover, she seems virtually incapable of resisting the seductive temptations of the world. Even when she does succeed, the victory is, to say the least, ambiguous:

[A] friend I love so dearly came and asked me to ride in the woods, the sweet-still woods, and I wanted to exceedingly—I told him I could not go, and he said he was disappointed—he wanted me very much—then the tears came into my eyes, tho' I tried to choke them back, and he said I could, and should go, and it seemed to me unjust. Oh I struggled with great temptation, and it cost me much of denial, but I think in the end I conquered, not a glorious victory Abiah…. I had read of Christ's temptations, and how they were like our own, only he did'nt sin; I wondered if one was like mine, and whether it made him angry—I couldnt make up my mind; do you think he ever did? (Letter 36)

In the same letter, a Dickinson deadly serious in her playfulness asks her correspondent: "Where do you think I've strayed, and from what new errand returned? I have come from 'to and fro, walking up, and down' the same place that Satan hailed from, when God asked him where he'd been, but not to illustrate further I tell you I have been dreaming, dreaming a golden dream, with eyes all the while wide open." Interestingly, she chooses to analyze her reprobate condition in the terms of an interpretive problem that she cannot solve and that leaves her "one of the lingering bad ones." She continues, "[S]o do I slink away, and pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why … and I ask what this message means that they ask for so very eagerly, you know of this depth, and fulness, will you try to tell me about it?" This process of continual pausing and pondering, of asking what the message means, seems not unlike the process that the poet requires her readers to pursue. But what makes Dickinson's association in this letter between the inability to interpret and her satanic persona so fascinating is its recurrence in other letters of the same apprentice period. In another letter to Abiah Root, Dickinson engages in a poetic whimsy and then says, defensively: "Now my dear friend, let me tell you that these last thoughts are fictions—vain imaginations to lead astray foolish young women. They are flowers of speech, they both make, and tell deliberate falsehoods, avoid them as the snake, and turn aside as from the Bottle snake, and I dont think you will be harmed" (31). In the course of discussing her various "mistakes" and her tendency to "sin," Dickinson essentially demands that Abiah, in turn, play the role of Eve to her own female Satan, whose final signature will be, appropriately, "Your very sincere, and wicked friend." There is an assumption of complicity here—an assumption that the initially tempted can and has duly become the tempter of another. In a letter written in approximately the same week, Dickinson emphasizes the contagion of her art to another correspondent: "[Y]ou are out of the way of temptation—and out of the way of the tempter—I did'nt mean to make you wicked—but I was—and am—and shall be—and I was with you so much that I could'nt help contaminate." At the same time, she emphasizes the sheer inevitability of her surrender to the process: "Is it wicked to talk so Jane—what can I say that isn't? Out of a wicked heart cometh wicked words" (30).

In many of these early letters, as Margaret Homans has observed, Dickinson moves easily between Eve and Satan as equivalent metaphorical figures. The assumption is that Eve is Satan's accomplice and therefore a tempter in her own right—in short, the tempted temptress. As such, she is a significantly doubled figure, an affirmatively subversive presence, and perhaps attractive to the woman poet for precisely that reason. The attractiveness of the Eve figure to the woman poet is that her seductiveness, while potentially her undoing, is simultaneously the means to an equally powerful seduction of her own. At the heart of her apparent powerlessness, at her weakest point of surrender, is a significant generator of power. And the passive power of luring, delighting, pleasing, need not signify weakness if it eventually confers the power to persuade actively. This entire scenario, of course, also offers a significant commentary on the possibilities of language. According to Homans's analysis of the Fall myth in Dickinson: "Adam becomes the traditional symbol for literal language in which words are synonymous with meaning, but Eve is the first to question that synonymity, the first critic, the mother of irony. It is in this sense that she is similar to Satan, and in making tempter and tempted synonymous Dickinson is recognizing this aspect of her inheritance from Eve."13

What emerges from that early Dickinson correspondence concerned with her poetic vocation is an almost Miltonic association of poetry, or of rhetoric in general, with intrinsic evil. Since the motor of poetry, metaphor, is the giving to an object a name that belongs to something else, the art of poetry is the art of the lie. In any Christian dispensation, "beautiful tempters" must be the offspring of Satan, the Father of Lies. In choosing to be a poet, Dickinson comes to view herself as a Mother of Lies, a necessary return to Eve. This is a consistent Dickinson, the same who enjoys reporting a nephew who "tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks" because "[h]e inherits his Uncle Emily's ardor for the lie" (Letter 315), and who delights in the successful dupings of the commercial world; commenting on her father's suspicion that he has been defrauded by the local steel market, she says, "I cannot stop smiling, though it is hours since, that even our steelyard will not tell the truth" (Letter 311). Perhaps this celebration of the lie is what gives such resonance to the story Dickinson told T. W. Higginson of her brother concealing Longfellow's Kavanagh under the piano cover for her in order to deceive their father (Letter 342B). It seems such a characteristic, appropriate gesture that it is not difficult to imagine the poet reveling in such a deception. Indeed, either way her narrative is one of deception: if the story is true then her father was her dupe, if not, then the dupe is Higginson. We would do well to remember, as readers of Dickinson, that the enjoyment of deception is prerequisite not merely for the poet but also for the love of poetry. And most frequently that deception is seduction. More specifically, a rhetorical seduction that is, I would suggest, firmly grounded in antebellum culture.


In her analysis of the postrevolutionary American novel, Cathy N. Davidson notes the particular significance of the printer's advertising technique for William Hill Brown's early novel The Power of Sympathy:

[E]ven a casual glance at the Thomas's typography … registers the prominent placement of the word "SEDUCTION." This key word is centered in the middle of the page; occupies an entire line; and is written in the darkest, clearest, boldest type on the page. Even the spacing between each letter gives further prominence to the word. What we have here is another graphic illustration (literally and figuratively) of the role of the printer in the creation of the American novel and in the "seduction" of the American reading public.14

But "seduction" is not merely a "key word" that helps us understand the techniques of commercial printing and advertising in the "selling" of the postrevolutionary novel; it is also the essential keyword toward any comprehension of the major fictional strategies of women writers from the postrevolutionary through the antebellum period. Seduction became the focal point of so many early American sentimental novels because it was a succinct metaphor for the gendered power inequalities of contemporary society. As Davidson neatly puts it:

Seduction spun so many of these sentimental plots precisely because seduction set forth and summed up crucial aspects of the society—the author's, the characters', the contemporary readers' (especially if they were women)—that did not have to be delineated beyond the bare facts of the seduction itself. Seduction thereby becomes a metonymie reduction of the whole world in which women operated and were operated upon.15

Postrevolutionary literature offers myriad examples of a female character whose reputation is ruined by a villainous male the characterization of whom, over time, assumes stereotypical proportions—the Lovelace of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa perpetually recontextualized. However, the fictional portrayal of sentimental seduction, almost always represented as the temptation of the central female character, with narrative suspense generated by the threat of her succumbing to the charms of that predatory male, is never merely a sexual interaction. A primary economic component is also implied in the fictional seduction: the eventual success of the seducer depends upon his superior social status, and therefore upon the greater economic and educational prospects of the middle-class American male. The scene of seduction is invariably a scene of inequality, and its fictional portrayal implicitly critiques the distribution of power and evaluation of worth in that society.

The social critique implicit in the novel of seduction produces fundamental ambiguities in the reader's response to the genre—not least because the central female character (in postrevolutionary sentimental fiction often a representation of irresistible innocence, in later antebellum sensationalism more likely a model of unfathomable deviousness) inevitably sets up a field of fatal attraction not only for the novel's male characters but also for the female reader. This raises the interesting question of who is being seduced by whom and points to a complex ambiguity at the heart of any sentimental novel that turns on the plot mechanism of seduction: to maintain the sympathy of the reader, the victim of the attempted seduction has to be "seductively" attractive to that reader. This leaves the reader-uncomfortably occupying an extratextual location that duplicates the seducer's position within the text. The ambiguous position of the reader vis-à-vis such a text, empathizing with the powerless while participating in an exercise of power, permits the novel of seduction its subversive subtext, its suggestive critique of social hierarchies. The subtext of the sentimental novel subtly questions the societal rules that are textually affirmed by the fall of a woman character. Not only is there an implicit critique of a generalized cultural misogyny, there is also the suggestion of possible reform; such inequalities could be rectified by legally enforceable punishment of the seducer and by superior education for women.

The basic ambiguities implicit in literary seduction would become explicit in the antebellum period. Such early American novels as The Power of Sympathy (1789) and its best-selling successors Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1791) and Hannah Webster Foster's The Coquette (1797), which particularly center on the possible seduction of a female character, were superseded by a stream of more sensational literature whose agendas included nothing remotely covert. While the seduction plot virtually disappeared from sentimental fiction by 1818, its basic concerns survived in the later sensational design that informs novels like Alice Cary's Hagar: A Story of Today (1852) and Married, Not Mated (1859). Meanwhile, the latent agenda of many early novels of seduction (that the seducee could become a potent seducer in her own right) was realized in later novels such as Lillie Devereux Blake's Southwold (1859), whose heroine, Medora Fielding, attracts men in order to destroy them, and Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power (1866), whose heroine, Jean Muir, wreaks vengeance on the male sex after first attracting them with her seeming innocence. David Reynolds notes that in many sensational novels of the period, "the fallen woman became a fantasy figure of vindictive violence and unrestrained sexuality. It was taken for granted that woman, once seduced and released from the constrictions of female propriety, was capable of becoming more ferocious and more sexually aggressive than man."16 In these novels we can glimpse a recurring paradigm: the assumption that seduction, far from being an incontrovertible disaster for the female victim, could in fact be a highly ambigious boon insofar as the surrender of a false, socially legislated vulnerability could release untapped power from within the central female character.

The scene of seduction was therefore double-edged. Seduction, conventionally the representation of female weakness before rapacious male sexuality, could simultaneously be associated, through a subtext reinforced by the reading experience, with the exercise of female power. If seduction "served as both metaphor and metonymy in summing up the society's contradictory views of women,"17 then those contradictory views, inevitably internalized by the middle-class female reader, found an expressive outlet in the paradoxical scene of fictional seduction, a male/female power interaction of fundamental ambiguity. The social ambiguities of the scene of seduction were probably heightened for nineteenth-century women writers because of their increased awareness of the fluid connections and strange parallels between the "real" and "fictional" rhetorics of their society—as in the overlapping of the "novel of seduction" and the moral-reform movement.18

In many ways, society and the socioliterary had established a certain equilibrium in the antebellum period. Society was effectively represented in a sentimental literature that, through its pervasive commercial appeal, came to influence the social structures that initially inspired it.19 The line between fiction and reality was especially transitive as regards seduction; if the fictional seductions of the sentimental novel were primarily a metaphor for larger power inequalities in postrevolutionary society, then the moral-reform movement, for example, suggests the active reemergence or effective literalization of that fictional rhetoric into the discourse of antebellum society. Of course, the similarity between the goals of the moral reformers and the concerns of a spectrum of women novelists before and during the antebellum period is scarcely coincidental. They shared an interest not only in the social inequalities figured in the scene of seduction but also in the potential rearrangement of the power dynamic that seduction offered.

The moral-reform movement was most active in the period from 1830 to 1860 and primarily aimed to eliminate seduction from contemporary society. This aim required that the movement focus on a double target, as there were clearly two subjects in need of moral "reforming": the actual or potential female victim and the actual or potential male seducer. To that end, the movement advocated not only the abolition of prostitution, which was regarded, somewhat naively, as purely a consequence of seduction, but also the exposure of male seducers who were viewed as the root cause of myriad social ills.20 The voice of the Female Moral Reform Society can be heard most clearly in its journal, The Advocate of Moral Reform, which by 1837 was publishing 20,000 copies semimonthly. That relatively large readership was neither disinterested nor passive, but a primarily female audience that responded enthusiastically to the journal's appeal for correspondence that would recount specific instances of seduction and name the male seducers involved. This strategy influenced the popular press of the day. For example, the Hampshire Gazette reports the case of a hysterical young woman found wandering the streets of Williamstown and notes that "the unfortunate heroine of the mysterious affair … is probably another of the thousand victims of seduction." The following week's issue follows up the story by observing that "the Pittsfield papers state that the betrayer of the artless girl is Edward Bulger. As no statute law can probably reach him, it is proper that the public press should herald his infamy, the whole length and breadth of the land."21 In so doing, the Hampshire County press not only reproduced the cause of the moral-reform movement but also assumed the typical rhetorical flourishes of that movement's mouthpiece.22

By studying the causes and effects of prostitution in urban areas, the female moral reformers came to recognize the working-class prostitute as the embodiment of a double standard that pervaded all social classes. The prostitute thus served as a convenient symbol of a general subjugation of women, and prostitution, signifying both sexual victimization and female powerlessness, as a convenient representation of the antebellum female condition. The moral-reform movement's straightforward commitment to eliminating the sexual double standard (the assumption that men could be promiscuous while women had to remain chaste or face the direst of consequences) hid a larger unwritten agenda of equality for women. Even though seduction implies a degree of mutuality, notions of choice are complicated when power centrally defines the relationship between the participants (many of the sexual encounters that nineteenth-century reformers considered "seduction" would today be categorized as rape). Only through exposure could the male seducer be placed on the same level as his victim. That subtle emphasis on leveling and equality explains how so many suffragists began in the ranks of the moral-reform movement.

The rhetoric of moral reform was the verbal manifestation of a widespread, if latent, female anger at social powerlessness, and it directly addressed the existing power dynamic. For while the narratives of the movement represented women as passive victims of male lust, the language of moral reform evoked the possibility of women's power: a power to avenge seduction (by publishing the name of the male responsible); a power to control the consequences of seduction (by treating the victim as precisely that, with no stigma of blame); and a power to reform the basic cause of seduction itself (by creating a more equitable society that would circumvent the power hierarchies that facilitate its operation). Thus, while "seduction" came to function for the moral-reform movement as a complex metaphor representing the gender power inequities that supported antebellum society, the actual scene of seduction, activating as it did those inequities, could be transformed into an assertion of female power; the message of the moral-reform movement, and its own literal example, was that a powerful female voice could make itself heard, even from the depths of male-instituted corruption. It was the recognition that at the ultimate limit of female powerlessness lay a reservoir of energy that could be tapped and expressed as female power. Of course, the submission of the self to a superior force as a preliminary to vital self-assertion is an essentially Christian message. The moral-reform movement reproduced that message but rewrote it more politically as a morally secular aesthetic of assertion, combining the vocabulary of religious conversion and the scene of seduction in a potent fusion of powerful intent.


Of course, it would be erroneous to assert that Emily Dickinson was in any way directly influenced by the cause of moral reform. Indeed, it might be more plausible to make the case that her poetry was sometimes a reaction to contemporary reform movements for which she often expressed nothing but disdain. The fact that her father was the respected Amherst executive officer of the Hampshire County Temperance Union in the 1850s probably only exacerbated a more general cynicism obvious in the gleeful sarcasm of her personal correspondence:

The Sewing Society has commenced again—and held its first meeting last week—now all the poor will be helped—the cold warmed—the warm cooled—the hungry fed—the thirsty attended to—the ragged clothed—and this suffering—tumbled down world will be helped to it's feet again—which will be quite pleasant to all. I dont attend—notwithstanding my high approbation—which must puzzle the public exceedingly. (30)

The same tone comes through more interestingly in her poetry, most memorably in Poem 401:

What Soft—Cherubic Creatures— These Gentlewomen are— One would as soon assault a Plush— Or violate a Star— Such Dimity Convictions— A Horror so refined Of freckled Human Nature— Of Deity—ashamed— It's such a common—Glory— A Fisherman's—Degree— Redemption—Brittle Lady— Be so—ashamed of Thee—

Indeed, this poem's attack on the "Dimity Convictions" of the atypical woman reformer might well be targeted precisely at moral reformers and their particular concern with the "assault" and "violation" of young, innocent women. Part of the effectiveness of Dickinson's irony in this poem is her insinuation of the substantial distance between the reformers and the objects of their, reforms. To put it bluntly, Dickinson seems to suggest that the women concerned need not worry that the circumstances affecting other members of their sex will directly affect them in any more vividly personal way; that they, in effect, scarcely merit the attention of any seducer.

Another poem that can be read as an oblique critique of moral reform is the often-discussed Poem 315:

He fumbles at your Soul As Players at the Keys Before they drop full Music on— He stuns you by degrees— Prepares your brittle Nature For the Etherial Blow By fainter Hammers—further heard— Then nearer—Then so slow Your Breath has time to straighten— Your Brain—to bubble Cool— Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt— That scalps your naked Soul— When Winds take Forests in their Paws— The Universe—is still—

Critics have often pointed out that this representation of a particularly effective preacher of the latter-day hellfire school is couched in terms of physical violence and sexual violation.23 This is the type of minister who attempts to ravish his congregation into heaven. One of the most effective contemporary critiques of the earlier male moral reformers was that they implicated themselves in the same sins that they condemned, wallowing in the very iniquity that they sought to correct. In this poem, the viciously violating power of the preacher's rhetoric may well be subverting the content of his address, ironically unraveling the power of its moral message.

The influence of the actual cause and agitations of the moral-reform movement on the poetry of Dickinson is therefore negligible. Any traces of possible influence are negative ones; the cause of moral reform provided simply another occasion for Dickinson's perpetual irony, the possibility of another studiously satirical exercise. Yet the hyperbolic rhetoric of the moral-reform movement was a pervasive part of the discourse of antebellum Amherst, a discourse within which Dickinson, for all her protested renunciation of society, was inescapably embedded.

To establish moral-reform rhetoric as part of the discourse of antebellum Amherst, I might begin by referring the reader back to the Fox seduction case of 1847. The editorial jeremiad excerpted from the New York Tribune is a classic example of the power and strategies of moral-reform rhetoric. What begins as a selected exposure of the conduct of an individual seducer builds to a broad attack on the hypocrisy of the entire male political establishment and its corrupt system. Of course, it might well be argued that the Fox case is primarily an example of New York moral-reform agitation and therefore, despite its appearance in a local newspaper, of limited applicability to Amherst. But that particular example is only one among many. The "seducer," a stock figure of the larger antebellum cultural imagination, was often conveniently localized in the Hampshire County press. A particularly popular narrative, periodically visited by the Amherst press, concerned the temptation of some "guileless girl" by a more experienced male concealing villainous intent. During the 1840s and 1850s, this seduction narrative was strikingly popular and always newsworthy. Tales of elopements and the designing and deserting villains responsible for them were part of the fabric of such local newspapers as the Springfield Republican, the Hampshire and Franklin Express, and the Hampshire Gazette.24

For example, in September 1845 an itinerant shoe salesman named Ransom Guillow, who had previously eloped with a young resident of Amherst (a "guileless girl"), was ambushed by a mob of angry townspeople. They tarred him, rode him on a rail, and made him promise never to show his face in town again. The Gazette reported, "[T]he whole transaction is causing considerable excitement in Amherst."25 Guillow, in effect, lost his individuality, subsumed beneath the convenient cloak of an antebellum archetype: the figure of "the seducer" was literalized momentarily by the unfortunate inter(e)loper. Small wonder the residents of Amherst were excited. Over the next four months, the subscriber to the Gazette could read of the substantial damages awarded a plaintiff whose daughter was the victim of an "aggravated case of seduction," or of the conviction at Dedham of one John Cook for "abducting an unmarried woman with purposes of seduction."26 In the years that followed, that same reader would learn the precise nature of the damages awarded; if, in May 1849, one Lawrence Boxer recovered $1000 from Phillip W. Ingalls for "seducing" his daughter, and then, by November of that year, Daniel S. Dickerman went to New Bedford court to recover $2800 in damages from Samuel W. Graves for the "seducing and debauching" of his wife, an inflationary spiral of sorts seemed to be pushing up the price of practicing seduction.27 While the costs of his action to the convicted seducer could usually be measured in financial terms, the costs to the seducee tended to inscribe themselves on her body more directly. A typical portrayal of the seducee's sad fate appears in an 1849 article entitled "The Prostitute's End—Crime and Remorse," a bleak narrative that begins: "Two young and beautiful women whose beauty had made them a mark for the seducer, were suddenly stricken with death yesterday afternoon. An elder sister decoy'd them from their home and made them prostitutes." Interestingly, the actual cause of the deaths in this case is never specified.28 Presumably, it did not have to be; the expected premature end of the seducer's "mark" could be left to the reader's imagination.

My own favorite example of this particular newspaper genre is from the Hampshire Gazette of 7 April 1846:

About a year since, a young man named Warren D. Tobey, came to Northfield with high recommendations from the Seminary at Wilbraham as a Methodist preacher, and was stationed at the Methodist Church in Northfield. He became attached to a worthy young lady of that church, by the name of Stratton, and their affection for each other soon apparently ripened into love. Under protestations of the most ardent affection for her, and with assurances that they were already married in the sight of heaven, the confiding girl yielded to the wiles of the seducer. Having accomplished his iniquitous purposes, he left Northfield.

What is so striking about this particular tale of seduction is the extent to which it mirrors many of the narratives imposed upon the life of Dickinson by her later critical readers.29 I have come to think this hardly coincidental.

Dickinson was still a teenager in the mid 1840s, and it might plausibly be argued that she was too young to be directly affected by such tales of seduction. However, as Dickinson matured there was virtually no way for her to escape the local newspaper fixation on the contemporary seduction of naive young women. For example, even some twenty-five years later Amherst exhibited "considerable excitement" about a case that, in many of its details, paralleled the Guillow affair. Indeed, the affair of 1871 very nearly had the same conclusion with, at one juncture, an irate uncle threatening to raise a mob of 250 students to tar and feather the villain who intended to marry his niece without the consent of her family. Amherst's excitement exploded in gossip that ran through all social strata. In a February 1871 letter to his wife about what had come to be known as the "Count Mitiewicz/Miss Lester affair," J. Leander Skinner noted that "Amherst was never so much excited, from the President to the sots, nothing else has been talked of or thought of for several days."30

The general interest in the case noted by Skinner is borne out by the considerable coverage and commentary received in the local press. The Amherst Record of 9 February 1871 characterized the incident as a "first class sensation," observing, "We do not remember ever seeing so many of our citizens so excited by any local occurrence as during the past week." The Hampshire Gazette, under the caption heading "Great Excitement over a Love Romance," also observed that Amherst had been "very much excited for ten days past." Meanwhile, the Springfield Republican reported in detail on "facts exciting enough to set romantic hearts palpitating and excite the distrust and anxiety, if not the indignation, of all sober minded and respectable people."31 "Excitement" was clearly the adjective of choice, just as in 1845.

The facts in the case seem relatively straightforward. Carrie Lester, the niece of a Professor Tyler of Amherst College, had fallen in love with Eugene Mitiewicz. The latter claimed to be a Russian count, although his lineage was apparently closer to the Polish peasantry than the Russian nobility. What Mitiewicz could claim to be with some justification was an adept confidence man. There was already substantial evidence that he had financially cheated a number of gullible individuals (often women whose affections he cultivated) in other locales, and that he had spent time in prison, both in America and England, as a result. The fact that the art of the confidence man worked so well in Amherst exasperated the Amherst Record, which observed that the "utter lack of decorum and good manners" displayed by Mitiewicz "in all his performances here shows not only that some people like to be gulled, but also that some people do not know when they are gulled."

The behavior of Carrie Lester provoked similar exasperation. The Hampshire Gazette confined its comments to the observation that "the love of the young lady is simply a case of infatuation, for she knows all the previous facts about his previous love and criminal life, and yet seems to love him more than he does her, and will insist on throwing herself away upon him," and the Amherst Record judged simply that she was "under a sort of infatuation which she seemed as powerless to resist as a bird under the charms of a basilisk." The Springfield Republican, however, used her infatuation as the basis for a more general comment on the vagaries of the female sex: "It is distressingly discouraging to those who want to believe in the right and capacity of woman to take care of herself, when an intelligent and well bred American girl gives herself so unreservedly, and against the advice of all her best friends, to a man so unworthy."32 The newspapers did reach consensus on one matter: as the Hampshire Gazette remarked, while marriage "would be the proper and regular termination of the affair in a novel … facts are sometimes dreadfully unromantic." That disparity between fact and fiction led the local press to hope earnestly that "the dreadful calamity—which to any well ordered family would be darker than death—may in some way be averted."33 But despite the general disapproval of the print media, the marriage eventually did take place in Amherst in May 1872. The church was filled to capacity in only ten minutes, which, since none of the bride's family were present, further reflects the continued excitement in Amherst about the affair, an excitement sustained for more than a year.

The contemporary fascination with the affair seems primarily focused on the character of "the count," an individual generally recognized as "a man of decidedly doubtful character."34 The precise nature of that fascination is evident in a narration borrowed by the Amherst Record from a New York newspaper. It describes the count's typical technique as practiced in his previous charming of another young woman, which also permitted him to appropriate her diamond ring (he later pawned it): "[A]rtistically twirling the ring in the sunbeams, with an apologetic air, the nobleman placed it on his little finger…. He was good looking. He was fashionably dressed. He was fascinating. He was deferentially affectionate."35 While this media portrait casts the "count" as the "confidence man" so fascinating to the American public of the time, it also recalls the earlier antebellum seducer, a prior version of the charming individual who led young women astray in order to appropriate their most valuable possession—be it their diamond ring or their virginity. The fact that traits of an earlier seducer persona cluster around the figure of the "count" suggests their continuing appeal to a later audience.

Between 1845 and 1871 there does appear to have been a declining interest in the seducer as an individual phenomenon. The local newspapers, for example, reported considerably fewer tales of seduction after the Civil War. But perhaps that apparent decline is partially explicable by taking into account how the art of seduction was subtly recontextualized: the seducer took on a different form, the form of the confidence man as exemplified in the person and techniques of the "count," who was simply a stylistic variation on the earlier seducer. At the same time, the media treatment of Carrie Lester would suggest that society recognized that the woman of the 1870s wielded more power over her choices, whether those choices were ultimately for good or ill. This would imply a subtly different attitude toward the probable seducee, too: she was held more accountable for her actions than was her ante-bellum predecessor. Therefore, the most important evidence provided by the Mitiewitcz/Lester case is that the basic "seduction" formula, structurally updated and adapted, had not only survived but maintained its appeal: the fine art of "seduction" still had the same capacity to generate "considerable excitement" in Amherst that it had a generation before.

Less plausible is the argument that the newspaper treatment of the Mitiewicz/Lester case shows how seduction, reported as a matter of life and death in the 1840s and 1850s, had become more a passing amusement, a media circus, in the 1870s and 1880s. Evidence that public concern and outrage had not dissipated into public entertainment is provided by the Springfield Republican. One month after the newspaper reported the denouement of the Mitiewicz/Lester affair, it (deliberately?) offered a bizarre alternative coda to the scene of seduction. In June 1872, the Republican, under the capitalized caption heading "SAD AFFAIR AT AMHERST," noted:

A young woman at Amherst, of good family and of gay, vivacious and impulsive disposition, fell a victim some while since to the wiles of a seducer. A few weeks ago she gave birth to a child, and the feeling that she had brought disgrace upon her family preyed upon her to such an extent that she lapsed into periods of deep melancholy…. [S]he managed in some way to get possession of a small quantity of strychnine, and swallowing it was soon a corpse.

Significantly, this young woman of Amherst fell prey to the same "wiles of the seducer" that were the downfall of Miss Stratton some twenty-five years before. What this series of newsworthy stories reveals is another narrative of exceptional relevance to the ante-bellum period, one that clearly lingered after the Civil War. That narrative concerns the activities of the seducer, a figure who stalked the young women of Amherst for those twenty-five years in a variety of guises. Less a reality than an effect of the cultural imagination, catered to by the salacious tendency of the local media, the character of the seducer was realized by, or perhaps draped upon the shoulders of, such (un)worthy locals as Guillow and Mitiewicz. In reality, however, such a role could perhaps only be played to clinical perfection by that unnamed seducer whose successful seduction took the equally anonymous young woman's life.

It should by now be evident that many of the surprisingly sensational narrative scenes that critical analysts can plausibly extract from Dickinson's poetry—the seductions, the elopements, the corruptions of young women, the suicides that follow abandonment—were not necessarily gleaned by her from reading available literary texts but were actualized in her own local newspaper sources. Of course, whether Dickinson actually did or did not read, or even have access to, the Hampshire Gazette and Springfield Republican on certain days is not critical. Given the fact that Amherst was small enough for gossip to spread like wildfire and that Dickinson showed no disinclination toward sharing gossip with her closest female confidantes (indeed, much of her correspondence with Mrs. Holland assumes a mutual and thorough knowledge of that particular week's Springfield Republican), she herself may well have been familiar with the content of the news stories from other sources. What clearly is important is that there was considerable local public interest in the figure of the seducer as a regional phenomenon. Dickinson would not have needed to hear of specific seductions for the scene of seduction to form an integral part of her psyche when, through the popular cultural imagination of Amherst, for a period of some twenty-five years, strolled the wily figure of the seducer of guileless young women, a very plausible bogeyman for the adolescent female, or a suitably nightmarish familiar.

That familiar seducer is a fixture of Dickinson's poetry. Poem 1053 offers a paradigmatic demonstration of his technique:

It was a quiet way— He asked if I was his— I made no answer of the Tongue But answer of the Eyes— And then He bore me on Before this mortal noise With swiftness, as of Chariots And distance, as of Wheels. This World did drop away As Acres from the feet Of one that leaneth from Balloon Upon an Ether street. The Gulf behind was not, The Continents were new— Eternity it was before Eternity was due. No Seasons were to us— It was not Night nor Morn— But Sunrise stopped upon the place And fastened it in Dawn.

This poem, like so many of Dickinson's that feature an unspecified male figure, has a potentially significant double reference. That vague pronoun "He" clearly refers to some male force that could completely efface the world as it was previously known to the speaker. The pronoun could therefore quite plausibly signify yet another of Dickinson's personifications of Death as cosmic travel courier. Similarly, "He" might be the God who requires a Christian, especially as one of the Calvinist elect, to turn away from mundane earthly concerns. However, the poem resonates with the possibility of a secular equivalent, an earthly transformation of a woman speaker by a male figure that is of sufficient magnitude to ensure that "Eternity it was before / Eternity was due." This figure takes her not "Beyond this mortal noise" but "Before this mortal noise," a significant difference. Establishing the seductive aspect of the deathlike masculine figure who strikes the speaker dumb when "asked if [she] was his" is therefore of particular importance. It is worth recalling that the antebellum woman who succumbed to the wiles of the seducer would, in a real sense, have comprehensively destroyed her world. That destruction went considerably beyond social ostracizement and isolation: the succumbing to the seducer, at least in its fictional representation, was inevitably considered a prefiguring of the seducee's death. Therefore, it was not only God whom none could see and live; for an antebellum woman, the same was often true of the seducer.

Similarly, Dickinson's personification of the frost in Poem 391 develops a further resonance that hardly needs explication:

A Visitor in Marl— Who influences Flowers— Till they are orderly as Busts— And Elegant—as Glass— Who visits in the Night— And just before the Sun— Concludes his glistening interview— Caresses—and is gone— But whom his fingers touched— And where his feet have run— And whatsoever Mouth he kissed— Is as it had not been—

The fact that Dickinson tended to represent not just frost but also God, Christ, and Death as seductive male figures who demand of her narrators the willing surrender of their entire being is not likely to be coincidental. Indeed, that fact might remind us of the extent to which the social ramifications of seduction were presumably more significant determinants of the Dickinson psyche than was her fearful approach toward the symbolization of a Jungian animus. The unspecified "He" whom the reader of Dickinson's poetry can variously find fumbling at the victim's soul before scalping her (315), snapping the belt around her life preliminary to folding her up (273), finding, setting up, and adjusting her being (603), touching her in particularly memorable ways (506), and in general, living a life of ambush in anticipation of her passing (1525) is, I would suggest, somewhat more than an all-purpose, protean "Burglar! Banker—Father!" male figure (49). While sometimes "He" may be identifiable as God or Death or Lover or Father, what can always be said with some certainty is that his typical actions and strategies are those of a first-rate seducer.


I would argue that seduction rhetoric influenced Dickinson's poetics by making available to her certain rhetorical structures. The pervasiveness of such rhetorical structures helped create an antebellum milieu in which seduction was a prevalent thematic center, not simply as a narrative subject but also as a linguistic, rhetorical category. For ninteenth-century women, the act of seduction, whether fictional or real, came to be a metaphoric and metonymie representation of their subject position in society—a "structure of feeling," in Raymond Williams's felicitous phrase.36 For any woman writer who began writing in the 1850s (as Dickinson almost certainly did), this cultural rhetorical code was available; for a writer with the courage to adopt a more liminal position within that culture, it was adaptable. Moreover, essentially reflective of the power dynamic operative in antebellum society, it was particularly attractive, as a rewritable discursive formation, to the woman writer who sought to rechannel linguistic power.

Cheryl Walker has shown how many Dickinson poems are subtle rewritings of the paradigmatic structures that inform an antebellum women's poetics. She identifies three thematic stances for the woman poet: "identifications with power, identifications with powerlessness, and reconciling poems that attempt to establish a ground for power in the midst of powerlessness itself."37 Dickinson, an avid reader of sentimen tal fiction, a skeptic only too ' aware of the masks worn by the orthodox, and a radically unorthodox Christian herself, was perfectly situated at the juncture of many of the major cultural manifestations of seduction rhetoric. Given her liminal positioning, she could restructure that rhetoric, particularly within the grounds of the "reconciling poem" concerned with establishing power at the heart of powerlessness. Thus, while Dickinson's contemporaries, the literary domestics, were continually re-adapting the seduction theme as a cultural given, part of an inherited discourse, essentially treating it as a textual element that could be integrated into their fictional content,38 Dickinson absorbed it into her poetics, the code at once becoming part of the form and inhering in the very structure of her poetry. Rewritten, the code became a new rhetoric, a new poetics of power.

Dickinson's new poetics of power often begins with the creation of narrative scenarios of seduction. Of course, if the scenario Dickinson's female speaker establishes within the poem is a scene of seduction, then she herself has assumed the parallel role of antebellum seducee. But as we have seen, the role of antebellum seducee was not without its possibilities when deliberately and consciously assumed. In the antebellum period, the scene of seduction had become' for women the convenient representation of the existing gender hierarchy and the act of seduction the effective symbol of their own relative powerlessness. However, the fictional or rhetorical rendering of a scene of seduction by a woman writer offered the potential both to address and to directly expose that hierarchy. The recreation of that power structure in writing—which amounted to the fictional representation of a relationship that already represented a larger social structure—could be the means of access to a power grid that potentially could be rerouted. When the female speaker of a Dickinson poem appears to set up and validate a traditional male/female hierarchy within the scene of seduction, she is simultaneously engaged in a subtle questioning and sometimes an inversion of the very same power coordinates that support that hierarchy. Indeed, this subversive process occurs frequently enough to suggest that the examination and dismantling of the power dynamic between the speaker and her male addressee is the primary theme of the poems.

The typical strategy of seduction in such a poem is figured in the apparently submissive female speaker's address to a significantly more powerful male reader/addressee. In the course of that address, however, it is precisely the relative power of the two subjects that is increasingly called into question. Frequently within Dickinson's poems, the establishment of a scene of seduction between a powerful male and a powerless female is the preliminary to its inversion; the would-be seducer becomes the seduced and the great Caesar is himself the greatly seized.39 In effecting that seizure, both of the male addressee and of the reader who momentarily occupies the addressee's position, Dickinson italicizes an existing rhetoric of seduction in order to venture an ironic commentary on male power and on the gender hierarchies instituted by the society within which her poetics took shape.40 Her poetry therefore often provides a consummate demonstration of how the powerful male can have both his role and his power usurped by the submissive female, or more precisely, of how the seducer can so easily be seduced through rhetoric by the intended object of his seduction. I would argue that this dynamic has also had significant ramifications for the critical dialectic, for the ways in which Dickinson has been interpreted. Contemporary scholars have frequent recourse to "seduction" as a critical trope of varying application: John Cody sees Dickinson as "repeatedly seducing" Higginson "into submitting his self-important and inept literary advice"; Suzanne Juhasz argues that Dickinson's letters practice a "seduction carried out by flattery, so that the compliment serves as the essential rhetorical act"; Karl Keller views Dickinson both as a "crude seductress" and as a "daring virgin inviting seduction, foreplay and penetration"; and William Shurr reinstates "the theory that Dickinson was seduced and abandoned, and that such an event had something to do with her poetry."41 In so doing, these critics have perhaps identified the antebellum dialectic implicit in Dickinson's rhetorical approach to readers, but they have also foregrounded the evidence of their own ahistorical seduction.


1 Recent studies that are guilty of varying degrees of historical determinism but that also make invaluable contributions to Dickinson scholarship include Joanne Dobson's Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989); Barton Levi St. Armand's Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984); and David S. Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).

2 Joanne Dobson, '"Oh, Susie, it is dangerous': Emily Dickinson and the Archetype of the Masculine," in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, ed. Suzanne Juhasz (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1983), 80.

3 Clark Griffith, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1964), 166.

4 See Poems 520 and 476 in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1955); hereafter cited by poem number only. Dickinson's letters are cited according to the numbering in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1958).

5 Griffith, Long Shadow, 171, 164.

6 Adrienne Rich makes the case that the male figure is Dickinson's figuration of her poetic imagination ("Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," Parnassus 5 [Fall-Winter 1976]: 49-74); Joanne Feit Diehl uses the "influence" theory of Harold Bloom to reinterpret the figure as a composite precursor-muse (Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981], 13-33); and Albert Gelpi develops the idea that the figure is a Jungian animus ("Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in America," in Shakespeare'sSisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979], 122-34).

7 Dobson, "Archetype of the Masculine," 90 (emphasis added).

8 The Hampshire and Franklin Express article contains an interesting copy-reading error. Its introductory summation of the case states that the seducer's name is Michael Kane, even though the editorial quoted from the New York Tribune twice asserts that the seducer's name is Hare (the Tribune is unsure of the first name, using both Michael and Martin, but certainly not the surname). The altered surname unfortunately destroys the allegorical, animal fable symmetry of the Fox/Hare case. The Express's confusion of two similar Irish surnames is probably an example of the paper's more general tendency toward negative stereotyping of the new and growing Irish community. However, I also like to think that the biblical resonance of the surname, and its connotation of sinner, may have had something to do with the slip.

9 For a discussion of transgression in Victorian novels by women, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979). On the issue of women readers' responses to the Miltonic tradition, see Gilbert's "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," PMLA 93 (1978): 368-82.

10 This is Shoshana Felman's characterization of seduction (The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983], 28).

11 Jack Lee Capps, Emily Dickinson's Reading, 1836-1886 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), 71.

12 One of the most significant recurrences is surely Dickinson's hermetic assertion that "[i]n all the circumference of Expression, those guileless words of Adam and Eve never were surpassed, 'I was afraid and hid myself" (Letter 946).

13 Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 171.

14 Cathy N. Davidson, Resolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), 91.

15 Davidson, Revolution and the Word, 106.

16 Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance, 363.

17 Davidson, Revolution and the Word, 110.

18 Two critics particularly interested in Dickinson's relation to her culture have somewhat surprisingly chosen not to analyze the potential influence of reform movements on her rhetorical strategies. St. Armand correctly asserts that "only by charting Dickinson's debt to her own time can we truly be sure how she may have anticipated current aesthetic and philosophical concerns," and he examines the ways she "italicized" aspects of the contemporary dogmas and cults of Calvinism, transcendentalism, Gothicism, occultism, and Ruskinism through "a process of personalization, internalization, exaggeration, and inversion" (Dickinson and Her Culture, 11, 73). However, St. Armand does not pursue that process of Dickinsonian bricolage to consider her use of the vocabulary provided by contemporary reform movements. On the other hand, while Reynolds states that "moral reform literature offered a wealth of imagery and themes" and assumes that there was a Bakhtinian "stylization" of reform devices by antebellum writers who took the reform impulse and reform imagery as rhetorical materials for their own art, and while he elsewhere discusses contemporary female influences on the poetry of Dickinson, he does not connect the two by discussing the possible influence of female moral-reform rhetoric on Dickinson (Beneath the American Renaissance, 54-56, esp. 55).

19 The transitive line between fiction and reality in the antebellum period is brilliantly explored by Karen Haltunnen in Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-70 (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1982).

20 My interpretation of the significance of the moralreform movement is heavily indebted to the argument of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's study "Beauty, the Beast, and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America," in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1985), 109-28; first published in American Quarterly.23 (1971): 562-84. My own argument is particularly indebted to her suggestion that "some nineteenth-century women channeled their frustration with women's restricted roles combined with a sense of superior righteousness legitimized by the Cult of True Womanhood into the reform movements of the first half of the nineteenth century; and in the controversial moral-reform crusade such motivations seem particularly apparent" (109). See also Barbara J. Berg, The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism—The Woman and the City, 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978).

21Hampshire Gazette, 26 December 1848; 2 January 1849.

22 See also the Hampshire and Franklin Express of 8 September 1848, which concludes yet another tale of seduction with this pointed rejoinder: "When we last heard of the scoundrel he was living in Boston, Mass., where he may have the pleasure of reading this story for his villainy. And if he feels any uncertainty at his own identity, let him go to the town of Orono, Maine, or to the recorder of the United States Court, and enquire for the name of Mr Woods, who figured conspicuously some ten or twelve years ago, as a thief, mail robber, convict, seducer and ingrate." Such public exposure was clearly not exceptional.

23 At the same time, of course, it is one of Dickinson's most effective representations of a seducer in action. In that context, see the recent workshop discussion of this poem as power play between Robin Riley Fast, Suzanne Juhasz, and Ellin Ringler-Henderson in Emily Dickinson: A Celebration for Readers, ed. Suzanne Juhasz and Cristanne Miller (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989), 53-84.

24 The Dickinson family directly subscribed to the Spring-field Republican and the Hampshire and Franklin Express (later to become the Amherst Record). Other newspapers, such as the Hampshire Gazette, would have been available locally, and there is evidence that Dickinson had access to the Gazette in particular. For example, the poem "The Life Clock," a probable model for her own "A Clock stopped" (287), first appeared in that newspaper.

25 See Hampshire Gazette, 9 September 1845.

26Hampshire Gazette, 25 November 1845; 6 January 1846.

27Hampshire Gazette, 1 May and 27 November 1849.

28 See Hampshire Gazette, 28 August 1849.

29 I am referring, of course, to those Dickinson readers who have assumed the possibility of a seduction of sorts by the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. This scenario was revisited in the 1980s by William H. Shurr in The Marriage of Emily Dickinson: A Study of the Fascicles (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983).

30 Qtd. in Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1960), 2:168.

31Amherst Record, 9 February 1871; Hampshire Gazette, 14 February 1871; Springfield Republican, 8 February 1871.

32Hampshire Gazette, 30 April 1872; Amherst Record, 9 February 1871; Springfield Republican, 7 February 1871.

33Hampshire Gazette, 30 April 1872; Amherst Record, 9 February 1871.

34Springfield Republican, 8 February 1871.

35Amherst Record, 9 February 1871.

36 See, for example, Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 65.

37 Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), 38.

38 For a discussion of the "double bind" that the socalled "literary domestics" had to confront, see Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984).

39 For examples of this hierarchy-inverting process, see Cristanne Miller, "How 'Low Feet' Stagger: Disruptions of Language in Dickinson's Poetry"; and Margaret Homans, '"Oh, Vision of Language!': Dickinson's Poems of Love and Death," in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, 134-55 and 11433.

40 Fredric Jameson's suggestion that a literary text is also an intrinsically symbolic act, that the text presents a symbolic resolution to a problematic contradiction within the particular society in which it is written, might be particularly useful for explicating a more "political" mediation between Dickinson's poetic text and the "text" of antebellum culture. See The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), 80-83. While Dickinson's poetry does not symbolically resolve a contradiction in the larger patriarchal society, it attempts instead to resolve a contradiction at the level of the early and inadequate prefeminist response to the problem of women's role in antebellum society, a response prefigured in a rhetorical trope of seduction.

41 John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1971), 433; Suzanne Juhasz, "Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters," ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30 (1984): 171; Karl Keller, The Only Kangaroo among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), 25-26; Shurr, Marriage of Emily Dickinson, 189.


Dickinson, Emily